A female covert ops specialist goes rogue when she discovers that the very people she has trusted with her life have double-crossed her, putting her and everything she values in jeopardy. Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is a highly trained operative working for a government security contractor in the dirtiest, most dangerous corners of the world. After successfully freeing a Chinese journalist held hostage in Barcelona, she discovers the man has been murdered—and all the evidence points to her as the main suspect. Suddenly the target of skilled assassins who know her every trick, Mallory realizes someone deep inside has betrayed her. But who? And why?

Soderbergh trots out an all-star cast for Spies, Lies and Action thriller.

From as far back as 1989, when Sex, Lies and Videotape announced his talent to the world, Steven Soderbergh has drawn fresh inspiration when working with strong leading ladies.

In that landmark indie film, Laura San Giacomo’s come-hither sexuality was the film’s beating heart, her smouldering, sweaty presence inspiring Soderbergh’s textural directing style. That happened again in Out of Sight (for me, Soderbergh’s best film), when Jennifer Lopez, fearless and searing onscreen, provided the heat for Soderbergh to bring to the boil his noirish classic. His most ambitious casting choice to date, hardcore porn star Sasha Grey in 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, was in the service of Soderbergh’s most idiosyncratic (and critically divisive) work of the last 10 years. (Of course, there is also Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, though that for that rather straightforward bio-drama, Soderbergh was more in service of the star; his substance-over-style approach on it is the exception that proves the rule.)

This trend to up his game in the service of his female protagonist emerges again in Haywire, his supremely-stylish spin on the cat-and-mouse world of international espionage. His latest muse is Gina Carano, a real-life Mixed Martial Arts champion with a fierce reputation in the ring and a compelling presence onscreen, albeit one with limited range (think Steven Seagal in his prime). Soderbergh has plucked her from cinematic obscurity (her only other credit is a bit-part in the Michael Jai White B-actioner, Blood and Bone) and plonked her in the midst of some A-list acting talent and vast, global locations.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a freelance operative who performs those dark tasks that governments want to keep off their books. A snowbound meeting in an upstate New York diner with her colleague Aaron (Channing Tatum) goes bad; he has been sent by her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), to bring her in or to kill her trying. The ensuing battle is brutal, the first of several in which Carano’s co-stars go at her with considerable ferocity ('Don’t think of her as a woman," advises Kenneth). She flees with wide-eyed diner patron Scott (Michael Angarano) in tow.

Relating her story so far to Scott and, in flashback, to the audience, Mallory recounts a Barcelona-set mission to steal back dissident Chinese journalist Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong) that nearly goes bad. Soderbergh, again acting as his own cinematographer, turns this sequence into a piece of technical bravado, melding composition, editing and music into one seamless, gripping whole. Having delivered the freed prisoner to Spanish connection Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), Mallory is sent by Kenneth to Dublin, where she accompanies Brit agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) to infiltrate the estate of one Mr Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz). But all is not as it seems; Mallory, double-crossed and targeted for termination, flees to the US, where she confronts agency head Coblenz (Michael Douglas) and seeks out her ex-Marine father (Bill Paxton) on her quest for vengeance.

Soderbergh has delivered a hugely entertaining revenge thriller that has no right to be so dazzlingly-realised. His ability to amplify the artistry of genre tropes was evident most recently with Contagion and in the past with the breezy Oceans movies; Soderbergh has proven that he can elevate such material far beyond its inherent worth. Carano, like those Soderbergh heroines before her, provides a blank canvas from which all his flourishes can take flight; she carries no star-baggage, unlike Angelina Jolie in the similarly-themed Salt, so the filmmaker has the freedom to take his actors, his film and his audience in any direction on her journey. And he does so with skill and energy; it is riveting, beautiful piece of modern film-making.