Momma always told me it’s not nice to hit a lady. I always thought it was out of respect. Turns out it’s because the lady might pummel you within an inch of your life with a series of rabbit punches and roundhouse kicks… especially when that lady is mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano.

As fixer-for-hire Mallory Kane in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, Carano brings not only a fresh face to the movies but a fresh concept, too– a bona fide, kick-butt, female star.

There isn’t a single moment in Haywire where you won’t think Carano’s doing her own stunts or that she really can handle herself (several times over). Her performance, coupled with another bit of inspired directing by Soderbergh, helps Haywire become the first really good movie of the new year.

Following a hostage extraction job in Barcelona, Mallory finds herself the target of her own handler, Alex (Ewan McGregor), via fellow assassin Paul (Michael Fassbender). After she foils the attempt, she’s forced to go on the run and figure out why she’s been marked for death, all the while kicking as much butt as possible.

The action hops from Spain to Ireland to New Mexico to Majorca (among a few other locales), and at each step along the way Soderbergh ramps up the action in his trademark style; often wisely halting David Holmes jazzy score to let the action speak for itself.

Carano has all the trappings of a movie star in the making. Her charisma is off-the-charts, and she also does a nice job when the punches stop and she has to actually act and recite lines, too.

The supporting cast, including Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Channing Tatum, all turn in solid performances, and the intelligent script by Lem Dobbs (The Limey) will keep you guessing until the end.

In an age where every movie and its cousin seems to get a sequel (Scary Movie 5? Really?), Haywire makes a strong case for really deserving one. Heck, if Angelina Jolie can make a couple lousy Tomb Raider movies…

4/5 stars