It's impossible to talk about this movie without sounding like an announcer in a trailer who says stuff like, "They set her up. They betrayed her. And now they'll pay." Because that's pretty much what happens here.
Gina Carano, a woman you've never heard of before unless you follow the world of Mixed Martial Arts, where she's already known as a foot-fist force of nature, stars as a covert agent on a fact-finding mission (turns out they did, in fact, set her up, betray her, etcetera), one that showcases what she does best: running, jumping, escaping, punching, kicking, shooting, more running and more punching. She's surrounded by a supporting cast of of heavy-hitters like Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Ewan MacGregor, Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender. And more than a few of them are going to die by her hands, so it's good that there's a surplus.
It's also important to know that this movie comes from Stephen Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Together, they made The Limey, so if you're looking for a reference point to hang your pre-screening ideas on, that's a good one. For a director who jumps across genres and styles, some of Soderbergh's most satisfying moments come when he time warps to the '60s and '70s for inspiration, just like he's doing here. Back then, action heroes were often less eager to be liked, less likely to always get their way and not usually expected to plumb the depths of their own feelings. So if Carano comes off like a monotone killing-robot, and she does, you could think of it as a stylistic choice rather than bad acting. At least until we see what else she's capable of doing on screen in the future.
If there's a novelty factor at work, then, it's not that Carano is female. Angelina Jolie has done this quite a bit already, and last year's brutal teen thriller Hanna allowed Saoirse Ronan a chance to get in on the lady-violence. But Carano is different in that she's doing it without stunt doubles. That's her mixing it up with Channing Tatum and taking her hits. That's her sprinting through the streets evading a gang of men with guns. And that's her pulverizing Michael Fassbender in one of the most bone-crunching, man-on-woman, hand-to-hand battles in recent memory. This means that the novelty is Soderbergh. He knows that if a movie is to have no point besides exhilarating gut-level action and the visceral/visual pleasure of watching real people really fighting, then that human energy has to be impeccably framed and allowed to play out without a million cuts, edits and tricks. By delivering a grittier, old-fashioned thriller, by letting his people hunt and destroy one another in real time, he delivers something that feels brand new.