You know, when someone decided that mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano should be a movie star, it would have been easy to showcase her fighting skills in some brainless, slapped-together action flick. That’s been the practice with plenty of other athletes-turned-actors, and it makes a certain amount of business sense. Why waste a good screenplay and a good director on someone who might not be a good actor?

But “Haywire” shows that our mothers were right: anything worth doing is worth doing well. Carano, indeed, is nothing special as an actress — but darned if it matters when she’s supported by a killer screenplay, a sharp cast, and Steven Soderbergh’s unmistakably sly, mordant direction. They could have put a robot in the lead (as long as it could fight) and still ended up with a blissfully entertaining 93 minutes of butt-kicking and snark.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a highly skilled mercenary who works for an unnamed company that is frequently contracted by the U.S. government to perform sensitive, dangerous missions like hostage extractions. But we don’t know any of that at first. What we know at first is that Mallory is in a breakfast diner in upstate New York, speaking casually but intensely with a man named Aaron (Channing Tatum), who is evidently a colleague of some kind. The smart, whirling screenplay — by Lem Dobbs, who wrote another fantastic Soderbergh film, “The Limey” — hooks us immediately by hinting at the characters’ shared history. They talk about what happened in Barcelona, what happened in Dublin, what “he” (whoever “he” is) told Aaron to say to Mallory. We don’t know what’s going on, but our instincts tell us finding out is going to be a lot of fun.

Our instincts are correct. With an innocent bystander (Michael Angarano) as her witness and audience, the on-the-run Mallory spends the first two-thirds of the film catching us up on what already happened. You don’t want to know the details from me, of course, but I can tell you there was a mission, a double-cross, and the other sorts of complications you expect to find in an espionage caper. The players include Mallory’s boss and former lover, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor); a Spanish client named Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas); a British secret agent (Michael Fassbender) with whom Mallory did a job; an older businessman called Coblenz (Michael Douglas); and Mallory’s soldier-turned-novelist father (Bill Paxton).

On paper (or on the computer screen where you just read it), nothing about that outline sounds notable. Even the fact that the chief butt-kicker is a female girl lady woman is barely newsworthy. But several things elevate the film to well-above-average, almost-even-great status. Soderbergh has a knack, demonstrated especially in the “Ocean’s” movies, for being inventive without showing off, and “Haywire” has this in spades. Infused with the director’s cool, jazzy style, it’s complemented perfectly by Dobbs’ effortlessly droll dialogue and the cast’s eagerness to have some slick, well-organized fun.

Despite those strengths, it’s possible that what viewers will enjoy most are the many, many scenes of people beating the crap out of each other. Soderbergh doesn’t disappoint here, either, taking full advantage of Carano’s real-life combat skills to deliver smashing sequences of marvelous violence. This is some of the most entertaining and cleanly choreographed hand-to-hand fighting I’ve seen in a while, and Soderbergh is careful not to diminish the fun by letting it get vicious or brutal. Could Carano carry a movie that required more nuanced acting than this one does? Hard to say. She could definitely carry a few more Mallory Kane films, though, and I’ll be happy to watch them if she does.

A- (1 hr., 33 min.; R, some profanity and a lot of fighting violence.)

Reprinted from Film.com.