EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm happy to introduce a new writer and a much-needed female voice to the In Contention team: Roth Cornet. And what better way to bring her into the fold than a report from last night's AFI Fest premiere of Gina Carano actioner "Haywire" from director Steven Soderbergh?

Steven Soderbergh premiered his new MMA spy-thriller “Haywire” at the AFI (not so) secret screening Sunday night at the historic Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The director was in attendance along with Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and the film’s inspiration and star Gina Carano for a post-screening discussion moderated by “The Insider”’s Joel McHale.

As a filmmaker, Soderbergh is known to make idiosyncratic choices. Though many of his films contain a similar visual style and tone, he is ultimately only predictable in his unpredictability. Over the past several decades he has released art house favorites, glossy popcorn chompers, earnest awards efforts and occasionally, some combination of the three.

Soderbergh also seems to have a proclivity toward stories that allow him to infuse his art with some of the quirkier sides of life. With 2009's “The Girlfriend Experience” he attempted to usher adult film star Sasha Grey onto a more mainstream world stage. In June of 2012 he will unveil “Magic Mike,” the self-referential look at Channing Tatum’s early career as a male stripper. “Haywire” gives the director the opportunity to indulge both his meta tendencies and his ongoing love affair with the thriller.

As Soderbergh tells it, he was home watching television one Saturday night some years ago when he happened upon something that engaged his appetite for the novel: Gina Carano fighting. As he watched the MMA star tear through the competition, the auteur thought to himself, “Someone should really build a film around this woman. She’s a natural beauty and she beats people to a pulp in a cage.”

Rather than let an opportunity go uninvestigated, the director essentially set out to combine his fascination with Carano with his affection for the early Bond films in order to create a contemporary "From Russia With Love" starring what he refers to as a female (step-up from) Steven Seagal. Soderbergh tapped “The Limey” scribe, Lem Dobbs, to pen the script with the following directive: “She needs to beat her way through the cast.”

Dobbs reverse-engineered said directive to create a revenge tale that utilizes a fairly traditional spy/espionage action-thriller storyline as the backdrop. Carano plays a covert ops specialist working for a “private company” who unleashes a methodical fury when she is double-crossed by those closest to her.

An eclectic cast (including Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender) was then assembled for Carano to brutalize in her feature film debut.

Two things motivated Soderbergh when he began the project: The desire to A) Introduce a female action star other than Angelina Jolie and B) Provide Carano with the same platform to showcase her talent that Steven Seagal was given 23 years ago when he was cast in ”Above The Law.” In fairness, the director has constructed a significantly elevated platform for Carano’s debut.

“Haywire” combines elements of expansive international suspense with the more nuanced camera and editorial work that initially made Soderbergh an indie darling. There is a raw quality to the cinematography and sound design that only serves to highlight the natural power of Carano’s fighting prowess.

Her co-stars are equal parts enamored of and terrified by her pure physical strength. There is an attraction that feels earthier than that of the more fetishized/sexualized female action leads that we are accustomed to, perhaps the most well known of whom is Ms. Jolie.

Jolie’s merits as an action heroine seem to be a common theme whenever “Haywire” is under discussion. McHale opened the Q&A by comparing the two women, saying, “This is the first action movie I’ve ever seen where I felt like you could kick the shit out of me and anyone here for real, as opposed to 'Tomb Raider,' where you were like, ‘Yeah…well.’” Aside from the side-by-side examinations of the films, Carano’s build stands in sharp contrast to Jolie’s slight and delicate frame.

As mentioned, “Haywire” was in some ways created as an answer to the standard female action fare, a way to break through the stereotypical depictions that perhaps function more as male fantasy than a legitimate illustration of feminine strength. 

Though the male supporting cast does display a respectful titillation when describing their fight sequences with Carano. Fassbender repeatedly hugged, kissed and stroked the sweet natured MMA star throughout the course of the Q&A but also confessed that he advised McGregor to “just run” when his turn came to go toe-to-toe with the cage-fighter.

McGregor described the most emblematic example of Carano’s dual nature when he recalled that in the midst of a right-left-right series of hits he accidentally “punched her right in the head.” To his shock, “She came straight up and she went, ‘Are you okay?’ And she was right! I really fucking hurt my hand. She didn’t even feel it!”

Though Soderbergh’s global pandemic thriller "Contagion" will likely serve as his awards offering, "Haywire" may be the stronger effort for some. Stronger in the sense that it accomplishes what it sets out to do in a more effective manner for it is the reality of Carano's abilities that interests the “Haywire” team. The film is meant to work as an entertaining stage to showcase her rough, ruthless and ultimately captivating mixed martial arts expertise.

Audiences will decide if “Haywire” does just that when it is released on January 20th, 2012.