Prodigiously talented director Steven Soderbergh has spent so many years following the golden ratio of "one for them, one for me" commercial/personal movie-making that, over time, he seems to have welded the two together. Was The Informant! a mass-market comedy starring a big movie star or was it a weird, quirky little tweak of a kind of movie they don't really make anymore? It was sort of both! And was Contagion, with its parade of stars and heavy marketing push, a big-ticket autumn thriller or a documentary-style, almost clinical musing on epidemiology and global connectivity? It was sort of both, wasn't it? And now comes Haywire, which is described in press notes as an action picture, and is certainly marketed as such, and yet there is a defiantly indie streak of meta curiosity running throughout it. It's action movie as experiment.

The Informant! was a goofy lark and, to shoot my own analysis in the foot, really doesn't exactly fit in with these other two adventures in genre. But Contagion and Haywire are very similar movies, different samples from the same created world. In this world of Soderbergh's making everything is stark and yet also unfocused — there are fuzzy flares of light amid otherwise crisp photography, and sprinkles of awkward emotion dotting a mostly cold and functional landscape. Soderbergh's world, or at least the world of Contagion and Haywire, seems like a pretty depressing place to live. Sure everyone's smart and capable, but everything is so bright or so dim, there's no in between, and feeling, real scruffy genuine human empathy and compassion and remorse and despair, all seem like a synthesized afterthought, an "oh yeah, right" nod to the actual human world this place vaguely resembles. Soderbergh's world is a grand place for him to swing his camera around in, to find new angles and washes of color and all that, but it's not a great place for people. Which is a shame, considering people are what movies tend to be about.

Just as there was really no weight or meaning behind all the epic death in Contagion, Haywire, about a burned special ops private contractor trying to get the guys who betrayed her, feels absent of actual stakes. Part of that is Soderbergh's fault, another part is his star's. Soderbergh has found a striking visual subject in Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter he plucked out of (mainstream) obscurity and made the star of his film. She's broader of shoulder and more physically forward than we're used to our movie actresses being, even those in action movies — Angelina Jolie's beautiful delicate bones would surely snap or shatter after one Lara Croft punch, but Carano is made of tougher, meatier stuff. She also moves like a machine when she's fighting and, when jumping and scrambling over rooftops or running through the tight gothic streets of old Barcelona, with a strange animality. She's not graceful exactly, in fact sometimes she's plain awkward, but she seems far more in tune with how each part of herself can be made useful than most of us humans are. She looks great in this film, to watch her use torque and leverage to level an opponent is the movie's chief delight. But then, I'm afraid, she opens her mouth.

Carano is not likely to be on the shortlist for any acting awards next season. She's got a low (electronically low, even), deadpan delivery that works in the terse, hardboiled scenes, but when she's given lines longer than a sentence or, worse yet, a bit of exposition to deliver, the severe limits of her abilities as an actress are laid detrimentally bare. Detrimentally to the entire experience of the movie, unfortunately. While it's easy to forgive the less-than-stellar chops of many an action star, female or male, Haywire is hobbled by Carano's inadequacy. There's no cushioning for it, because Gina Carano (or rather her character, Mallory Kane) lives in Soderberghland, where everything looks really cool but is also brittle and inert, frustratingly removed. At times Haywire feels like we're watching a rehearsal, a reasonably well-done rehearsal for sure, but a rehearsal nonetheless. Watching the film, one begins to daydream that, pleased with how all his shots are composed and choreographed, Soderbergh will eventually call for the actress Carano is standing in for, tell his supporting guys (among them Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, and Antonio Banderas) to "do it for real this time," and an actual movie will be made. But, of course, that is not the case. This is the movie he made, this flat and chilly little (and I mean little, the scale feels tiny) movie about a badly dressed (the hat, oh god the hat) hit girl who has a shitty week.

People get killed in Haywire but only one death really resonates, and even then it's effective only because it's so unadorned and unceremonious a moment. Nothing about Mallory's plight or anyone else's motivations really strike any chords either. So we are left not really rooting for our gal, instead simply rooting for the movie to give us another fight scene. Because those are terrific! Music-less and simply filmed, they're unshowy set-pieces for what Carano can do with her legs and arms (all parts of both). A scene where she does battle with Michael Fassbender in a Dublin hotel room is the film's strongest, a fight so brutal and yet almost rote that it verges on terrifying. It's the one time while watching the film that I felt the stirring of something more deeply felt than cerebrally nifty.

I do hope Soderbergh can get out of all this project stuff. I'd like him to make an honest-to-goodness movie again, instead of all these film class practicums in technique and genre (for which he'd mostly get A's, but still). He's too smart a guy, and Traffic was too good, to be spending his time doing all this perfunctory stuff. Let him do a movie with some real, earthy writing and real, earthy actors. I want his next movie (after Magic Mike, of course) to be Frances McDormand and Jeff Bridges tilling up things for a couple hours. That would be interesting. And, sure, if they need any butts kicked they can call in Carano and have her get the job done. Wordlessly, one hopes.