Joe Wright’s “Hanna” almost looks like this year’s “Kick Ass” in that it follows the exploits of a young girl who has been trained by her father to be an elite assassin so she can avenge her mother’s murder. But “Hanna” however is more down to earth in how it treats its characters and the events that envelop them. That doesn’t make it better than “Kick Ass,” just different.
On top of it being an action thriller with a bit of Luc Besson sleekness in its design, it’s also a fish out of water story as the title character makes her way into the real world. Hanna has spent her life in the woods, living in a snow-covered cabin where her dad has kept her safe. Now she is heading into a world she is as unfamiliar with as she is unprepared for it. Her mission of assassination is simultaneously a journey of discovery, making the story of “Hanna” come with more surprises than its premise would suggest.
Playing Hanna is Saoirse Ronan who starred in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” and Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones.” These are two movies I should have seen already, but have not. The good news for you though is that I won’t be wasting time comparing this film to those two. What a shame, huh?
On paper, Hanna seems a completely unrealistic character that could in no way exist in real life. But the beauty of Saoirse’s performance is that she makes her seem as real as any 16-year old girl making discoveries about herself. It’s a wonderfully complex character who is at once a deadly killer while simultaneously an innocent person. Seeing her come in contact with a civilization that she has been sheltered from all her life provides her with evidence that not everything involves guns, bullets and violence. Of course, seeing her get her first kiss is frightening because she can flip back to assassin mode in a heartbeat.
Most of her adventures come as a result of befriending a British family on a road trip whose daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden is a kick to watch) introduces her to teenage rebellion and some rather tacky fashion statements. Sophie’s parents, Sebastian (Jason Flemyng) and Rachel (”The Ghost Writer’s” Olivia Williams), come to admire Hanna’s independence and help her as she moves on to safer haven from the government forces who want to eliminate her and her father. Little do they know her real intentions which she covers with a fake back story that she has memorized to death.
Joe Wright comes up with some invigorating action sequences that made me feel like I was watching a Jason Bourne movie. There’s not much in the way of nausea inducing shaky camerawork, but you can feel the bullets flying in the air and the punches and kicks that land on her opponents, crushing them as if she were simply swatting flies. This is the kind of action film I like to watch in that you feel it instead of just sitting back like you’re a passive observer. It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of action movies like that in theatres at the moment.
In addition, he gets some amazing unbroken shots as we watch characters make their way through crowds of people while being followed by cold-hearted adversaries. If there are any other shots like this in recent movie releases, I haven’t seen them. It makes me want to say “eat your heart out Brian DePalma” as the choreography involved in filming an unbroken sequence like this is anything but easy.
There are other great performances to be found in “Hanna” as well. One in particular is from Eric Bana who plays Hanna’s father Erik Heller. His character is also a spy on the run whose relationship with Hanna is much more complicated than at first glance. Watching Bana here reminded me of just how much he throws himself physically and emotionally into his characters. It’s exhausting watching him here as we get reminded of his strong work in movies like “Black Hawk Down,” and less of his more comedic roles like in “Funny People.”
Then there’s the infinitely brilliant Cate Blanchett who never seems to suck in anything she does. While listening to her southern accent feels a bit odd, she is still sharp as ever as corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler. Throughout “Hanna,” Marissa is as obsessive in eliminating her and Erik as she is in cleaning her teeth. Heck, watching her brushing even while her gums are bleeding profusely reminded me of just how long it’s been since I’ve gone to the dentist. Cate also has a brilliant moment where she pays a visit to a key witness, but her face suddenly shows a wealth of pain that is mysterious in its origin. I don’t know how she did it, but it’s the one shot in “Hanna” that has stayed with me the most as her ruthless character succumbs to a moment of inescapable vulnerability.
On top of it all, you get a fantastically propulsive electronic film score from The Chemical Brothers. I immediately downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got back to my apartment. It’s actually the first time they have ever composed for a movie. Learning this made me want to say:
“Duh! What about “Fight Club?”
But wait, it was The Dust Brothers who did that one. I guess techno music is more of a family affair than I realized. Either that or all these brothers look alike. If you can, see “Hanna” in a movie theater with a great sound system. You just might find yourself bobbing along to the hypnotic beats coming right at you furiously.
“Hanna” is not without its faults. The pace of the movie tends to slag in between the action scenes which, while offering us some beautiful moments for the title character, drag the proceedings down more than they should. Also, it ends without resolving the fate of several characters, leaving us wondering what happened to them and if they came out of this alive and in one piece. The ending feels a bit too abrupt as a result.
Still, it’s a remarkably involving action thriller that doesn’t lay out everything for you at the start. The story continues to unfold throughout, revealing each of its secrets along the way. What brings it altogether is the fantastic performance of Saoirse Ronan who at her young age shows a professionalism and sharp focus on character equal to many acting veterans. Seeing her portray someone as innocent as she is very deadly makes it one of the most unforgettable performances I have seen so far in 2011.
* * * ½ out of * * * *