Steven Soderbergh has, for a while now, been conducting experiments and going through exercises, more than he's been making actual, functioning movies. Some of us find this unbearably exciting, and some of us are turned off by it. I find it unbearably exciting, and that's why I loved the living hell out of Haywire (a film he actually shot before his last feature, Contagion), which calls itself an action thriller, and this will have to do in lieu of a better tag; it is however, more of an anti-action movie, to comfortably sit on the shelf next to the director's anti-biopic Che, anti-character study The Girlfriend Experience, and anti-docudrama The Informant! (which doubles, conveniently, as an anti-farce). Which is to say, that even though it is filled with a great many fight sequences, most of them long and inventive, the overwhelming impression the film leaves is of grubby, quiet interiors and not so much of the hot chick kicking ass that the advertising promised and the studio executives clearly hope to trick people into paying money to see - not since The American has a film so conspicuously failed to be a conventional thriller. It's more like Kill Bill filtered through The Limits of Control, which is obviously going to charm a whole lot fewer people than most other combinations.

It is the third film, the first in over twelve years, to unite Soderbergh with writer Lem Dobbs; the last time they did this, the result was The Limey, which tells us something of the neighborhood we're in, tonally and thematically, though I will point out immediately that Haywire isn't is good as its predecessor, which remains one of the two or three best entries in the director's overstuffed CV, nor do I expect Haywire to match its achievement in having the all-time best DVD audio commentary, featuring a director and screenwriter just about ready to jump off their chairs and get into a knife fight (and this, maybe, is why they haven't collaborated again in over a decade). Like The Limey, Haywire plays with chronology (though not to nearly the same degree); it is again a meditation on its genre rather than being a full-throated example of said genre; it relies to an inordinate degree on casting to get the desired effect out of characters, not because of the performances involved, but simply due to the actors involved; it is color-coded (in blues, yellows, and greys), not in the programmatic narrative manner of Traffic, but according to the emotional tenor of the scene; it is edited in an unconventional manner that seems really damn weird and maybe even film-breaking, except that it seems so entirely pointed and deliberate; without violating spatial or chronological continuity, the film nevertheless doesn't care a whit about traditional continuity editing; one might be inclined to wonder how editor Mary Ann Bernard thought she could get away with it, if she wasn't Soderbergh's own pseudonym (same for Peter Andrews, the film's nonexistent cinematographer; the gorgeous shabby-chic cinematography isn't quite as peculiar as the editing, though some of the compositions are intensely strange).

What's going on, if I don't miss my guess, is that the dialogue scenes are being edited like they were fight scenes. "And the fight scenes are edited like dialogue scenes!" would be the right way to round that out, but it's not the case; they're being edited like fight scenes, too, and very well-edited fight scenes at that, with the cuts landing in time to the kicks and punches, creating a sort of visual music of physical brutality. Such brutality! Haywire has some of the most uncomfortably fleshy action sequences in recent memory (though not half so violent as to justify the movie's befuddling R-rating), with coffee pots and flat screen televisions and car windows breaking in ways guaranteed to make all but the most strong-willed wince, aided by a soundscape that rather pointedly refuses to glamorise the fights with a musical score, in favor of a heightened Foley landscape of gut-wrenching snaps and cracks and thuds.

And the fight scenes are helped even more by the fact that the lead player, Gina Carano, is not a professional actor but a MMA champion doing all her own stunts, and being unusually convincing about it. If the film is an exercise, as Soderbergh films tend to be, the chief nature of that exercise lies in fashioning an entire movie around a non-actor, tailoring everything about the project to her particular strengths and weaknesses. It is probably not an accident that the first person she interacts with is Channing Tatum, one of the few relatively important movie stars who can be reliably trusted to give a worse performance than an untested newbie; nor that the rest of an over-packed cast of faces like Ewan MacGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Fassebender really needs them to be just that: faces, instantly recognisable because they are celebrities, but not required to otherwise do anything (in this respect, more even than its experimental relationship to action cinema, it especially feels like a successor to The Limits of Control). It is the kind of film where Bill Paxton shows up as the protagonist's father, and we think "wow, Bill Paxton, what was the last thing he did?" and it seems perversely to be the case that the film anticipates that this would be our response. Anyway, the point of all this seemingly unnecessary stunt casting is to surround Carano with such a weirdly over-qualified group of people that our ability to properly gauge the quality of any of the acting in the film is short-circuited for 93 minutes; because, heck, if Michael Fassbender is really doing nothing more than Channing Tatum, then who knows anything for certain?

So, the action is exciting, and the non-action is strangely electric because of its refusal to settle down, and the look of the thing, with its color-coding extensively followed through the sets and costumes in addition to the lighting, is eye-catching without being obvious. Which leaves us with the script, and another chance for Soderbergh to break Dobb's screenplay all out of sanity. This time, at least, Dobbs appears to be in on the game, given that he structures the script using flashbacks (Carano's character, a private sector spy and government contractor who has been sold out by her boss, tells the whole story to a hapless diner patron played by Michael Angrano as they drive into the wilderness) that don't explain the nest of twists and double-crosses so much as they parody their own complexity. At one point, Mallory - for that is the name of our contractor - asks her pathetic little traveling companion if he's following her story, and his attempt to recap it reveal him to be quite a pleasant audience surrogate, trying to juggle far too many details that don't fit together properly yet. The resolution is dropped on us so quickly and fleetly as to almost not register (by that point, anyway, we're either too invested in the minute-to-minute beats of the action to care, or we've checked out of the movie past the point that it's ever going to capture our attention). And throughout, there's a sardonic little sense of humor (the final line, which calls back to the first line, is the best example; another is Mallory's explanation for how her companion can mend her arm) that shows that Dobbs doesn't really take any of this more seriously than Soderbergh does.

Haywire is, admittedly, ephemeral; it is an action movie made at the scale of a chamber drama, with characters shallow even by the standards of a thriller. The degree to which this is a critique of the tropes its playing with, and the degree to which it's simply an attempt to do those tropes in a new way, is hard to pin down; but either way, the sleek weirdness of its style means that it's a fairly unique beast. An exercise it may be, but exercises can be wonderful entertaining things; and while I know that I say this as a dyed in the wool Soderbergh junkie, I won't be at all surprised if this ephemeral, lighthearted bit of stylistic experimentation and non-acting ends up in my year-end best-of calculations; to be frank, I'd be more surprised if it didn't.