When Angelina Jolie starts running through the streets in one of her action roles, chasing or being chased, her arms in some kind of accelerated wind-chopping motion, it looks sort of plausible - and there are jump cuts and stunt doubles and whooshy beats to heighten the effect. OK, we'll buy that, we think (but gee, she sure looks skinny!).

When Gina Carano starts running through the streets in her big-screen action debut, chasing or being chased around Barcelona or Dublin in Haywire, there's not a second when we wonder, really? And when the mixed martial arts champ-turned-movie star (here's hoping) knocks Michael Fassbender silly in a hotel room - drop-kicking him through a doorway, scissor-locking his head - there's absolutely no doubt. This woman is serious.

And Haywire, the globe-hopping spy vehicle Steven Soderbergh has built around his charismatic new leading lady, is, from start to finish, serious fun. Disarmingly laid back for this kind of fare, with a jazzy musical score (courtesy of David Holmes) and a sleek, straight-ahead style, Haywire may not make much sense plotwise, but it's a rollicking 90 minutes of double-crosses and triple-crosses, assignations and assassinations, close-quarters combat and cool espionage-speak.

Carano is Mallory Kane, a freelance hit woman trained by the CIA, who takes a job to "extract" a Chinese dissident being held hostage in Spain. But before we get to that, Mallory has dropped down into snowy New England. She looks a little dazed, perhaps, or at least out of breath. She wanders into a roadside diner, sits at a booth, collects her thoughts. A guy (Channing Tatum) walks in and takes the seat across the table. He orders coffee. They seem to be friends.

(Didn't Martha Marcy May Marlene open exactly the same way?)

Next thing you know he's waving a gun, and then all heck breaks loose. The diner has become a cage-match venue, feet and fists flying. Then Mallory is on the run, collaring a wide-eyed rube named Scott (Michael Angarano) and using his car to make her getaway. He wants to know what that was all about, and for the sake of flashbacking to Barcelona for the first half of the movie, she obliges.

Soderbergh, who introduced another formidable female gunslinger - Jennifer Lopez's Karen Cisco - in his 1998 adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight, rings Carano with a cast of cool dudes. In addition to Fassbender, a suave fellow freelancer, and Tatum, who plays Mallory's partner on the Barcelona job, Ewan McGregor shows up as a shiftless killer; Michael Douglas, looking fit and G-man-ish, is a shadow-ops bigwig, and Antonio Banderas, bearded and then not, is a jet-setting baddy. Bill Paxton, camped out in a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish New Mexico abode, plays Mallory's Marine Corps veteran dad. Their reunion is touching - until the guys with Uzis storm in.

Haywire isn't deep, and Carano's line-readings could use honing, but she has presence, and grace, and grace under pressure. And when she jumps across the rooftops of Dublin, that's really her doing the jumping. She's not kidding around.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/