Steven Soderbergh is the undeniable master of intrigue, espionage, and emotional buildup. With Haywire, Soderbergh reveals this gift through the elegantly crafted script of Lem Dobbs (who also collaborated with Soderbergh on 1999's The Limey). Opening calmly enough with Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) going to a coffee shop and sitting down to meet Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), she is surprised to see one of her fellow operatives, Aaron (Channing Tatum), come in his place instead. When she refuses to leave with him, he throws a cup of coffee in her face and tries to physically overpower her. Mallory wins out and takes an unwitting hostage, Scott (Michael Angarano), so that she can use his car to escape. The pace of the movie waxes and wanes between this sort of extreme action, occasionally tempered with a more subdued method of storytelling.
As Mallory drives frantically through the back roads of upstate New York with Scott in tow, she recounts the story of how she went from working for a private company contracted by the government to a rogue on the run. Everything went wrong when she and Aaron took a job in Barcelona to rescue a hostage named Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong). Although they were able to reclaim Jiang and it all seemed to go according to plan, Kenneth managed to convince Mallory to take another job after she had already quit the agency (not to mention broken up with him several months prior). To persuade her, he goes to her apartment in San Diego and practically begs her to do him this one favor. Regretfully, she agrees.
Her cohort for the job is a freelance agent named Paul (Michael Fassbender), who she rendezvous with in Dublin. Since they have never met before, Mallory is instructed to wear a diamond brooch so that Paul will be able to recognize her. Mallory's only task is to pose as Paul's wife as they attend the Russborough House to meet with Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz, who you may recognize as Nino Quincampoix from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie) in order to further Kenneth's liaison with British intelligence agency MI6. Mallory does not begin to suspect that something is amiss until she sees Paul and Studer clandestinely talking outside near a barn. After she watches them separate, she ventures into the barn to discover Jiang's dead body--with the brooch Mallory was wearing at the airport in his hand so that she will be held responsible for the murder.
Now all too aware that she is about to be stabbed in the back (in a sense that is, in all probability, literal as well), Mallory tries to act as though everything is normal when she goes back to the hotel room with Paul. Before she gets a chance to continue her charade, Paul knocks her in the back of the head, initiating one of the many beautifully choreographed fights that pepper the majority of the film.
To put the pieces of the puzzle together, Mallory gets in touch with a government agent named Coblenz (Michael Douglas, after all, what would a Steven Soderbergh movie be without him?) to demand why the Barcelona job backfired. Unable to answer her questions fully, Coblenz promises to help her if she can make it back to the United States undetected. To achieve this, Mallory contacts her father (Bill Paxton, who doesn't really seem like an age appropriate choice for the role) in New Mexico and tells him to expect her there in two days.
From there, the action and intensity of Haywire escalates as Mallory unravels the truth (usually through an ass beating) about who betrayed her and why. Kenneth admits to his partial culpability by saying, "The motive is always money." It's a vaguely refreshing sentiment over the motive of most film characters always being love.