You have to hand it to Steven Soderbergh. If he is indeed bound for early retirement – or, at the very least, a “sabbatical,” as he has since clarified – then no one can accuse him of resting on his laurels, or indeed simply winding down the clock. Ever eager to push his own boundaries, the director has slalomed his way through the last decade, moving from star-studded, high-gloss entertainment (Oceans 11, 12, 13) through the artistically palatable but commercially unviable likes of Che, to what is now suck-it-and-see genre box-ticking (most recently Contagion). Self-indulgent, some might say? But, hey, when you can command the kind of stylistic smarts Soderbergh can, and also possess the A-List Rolodex he does, then you can indulge all you want.

For this, his latest, a stripped down, exercise in duplicitous, double-dealing espionage and rather painful revenge, Soderbergh has elected to not only go with a woman (which is virtually unheard of outside the realms of science-fiction fantasy), but someone who is almost a complete unknown with virtually no acting experience. The story goes that sometime in 2009 the director was channel surfing in a hotel room when he happened to chance upon Woman’s MMA on late night CBS, whereby a fiercely intense young lady, hair trussed up in cornrows, absolutely destroyed her opponent in a cage. It left such an impression that quite sometime later, when the director was let go from pre-production Moneyball, he decided to track her down and ask her to be muse, and to also kick people.

The result is an arthouse Bourne-esque odyssey, in which ex-marine and mercenary, Mallory (Carano) is both chased by, and also chasing, the many covert operatives of her ex-boss/ex-lover, Kennth’s (McGregor), PMC, after he attempts to frame her for the murder of a rescued dissident that he has sold to the other side. It’s From Russia With Love with a female killing machine in for Sean Connery. It’s Funeral in Berlin with Muay Thai. While she’s in no danger of becoming a great actress, Carano’s straightforward, unassuming method of dialogue delivery fits well with a character built around efficiency.

Like most professional athletes, Carano’s default posture is one of a coiled spring, even at rest, ready to unleash its potential energy at a split-second’s notice. Add to this Lem Dobb’s script – a masterclass of suggestive chat and engaging conversation,without an ounce of fat – and the result is an air of quiet unease that keeps the reader guessing as to which way any given scene will go from one moment to the next. When Channing Tatum’s merc rolls up on an upstate New York diner and slides into the booth opposite Mallory, and the two begin to chat, you could be watching any dysfunctional road trip movie in America. Only when the fists start flying, and everything from a cup of coffee to a bolted down barstool is made a weapon, do we realize the ride we’re in for. When Carano fights you can feel the heavens thunder and the walls tremble.

Even within the confines of genre, Soderbergh remains the consummate artist. Like his leading lady, Soderbergh’s camera glides, with the director’s trademark sheen illuminating locations the likes of Barcelona, Dublin, and New Mexico. His bluesy score is laid on heavy, but is never intrusive, propelling the narrative along with a lively rhythm from one set piece to the next – of which all are silent save for the heavy impact of blows and the snapping of limbs. Throw in a few wisecracks, and a dirty vest, and we may very well be heralding the birth of a new female action icon.