Thursday, November 10, 2011
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden
Running Time: 123 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
For as many story plots get recycled and movies remade it's at least reassuring to know there's still new and surprising ways acting performances can blow you away. The one given by Saoirse Ronan as a 16-year-old assassin in Hanna is proof of that. It's one thing for an actress her age to summon up enough poise, confidence and physical presence to believably portray a trained killing machine but what stuck out most for me out when it ended were all the other scenes where she's also called upon to play a scared, awkward teen. Comparisons have already been made to last year's Kick-Ass, which featured Chloe Moretz as a tween aged, foul-mouthed superhero killer named Hit-Girl but that character was was more satirical in nature. Director Joe Wright is deadly serious here, and takes a huge gamble in the process. But when it ended I was left with the feeling I had witnessed more than your routine action thriller, even if no one could be blamed for thinking that when evaluating the plot on paper. Half action movie, half beautifully twisted fairy tale, it's not for everyone and will probably put off as many as it thrills, but it's still difficult to claim you've seen anything exactly like it.
Raised and trained in the woods of Finland by her father, ex-CIA agent Erik (Eric Bana), 16 year-old Hanna Heller (Ronan) is ready to go out on her own. With just the flick of a switch, a transmitter alerts the government to their location, setting their plan into motion for Erik to escape and Hanna to eventually meet up with her dad following a trek through Germany. Getting in the way of that reunion and leading the charge in their capture is the calculating Marissa Zeigler (Cate Blanchett) an obsessive CIA operative with a personal connection to the case who clearly wants Erik taken dead, but also harbors a strange fascination with the girl. Moving at a deliberate pace that effectively builds tension and suspense, Hanna's journey at times more closely resembles a road trip than a manhunt as she falls in with a married couple (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng) on vacation and forms a friendship with their teenage daughter (Jessica Barden) but Marissa's always lurking in the shadows, as is her flamboyantly sadistic henchman Isaacs (Tom Hollander). Trained to kill but emotionally unprepared for the real world around her, Hanna must evade capture long enough to reunite with her papa in Berlin.
While the plot may seem bare bones on the surface, but that's to its credit as the discoveries come in the details. Beyond the exciting action, this is really coming-of-age character study interested in exploring the psychological implications of an isolated child suddenly thrust into the real world without a life raft. Trained only to kill and protect herself, the most memorable sequences occur when Hanna's confronted with everyday life. This is a girl who can shoot someone in cold blood, but is scared to death of an electric kettle, giddily jumps up and down at the sight of an airplane, and has no idea how to work a remote control. She's been taught multiple languages and history by her father and is given a rehearsed back story to tell strangers, but there's no substitute for actual experience, which is why her journey is so scary. So far ahead of any child her age in terms of physical capability and intelligence, what stands out is how far behind she is emotionally. Because the script is so deeply interested in getting into the protagonist's head space it becomes more than your standard action outing, which could turn off some viewers expecting only chases and kills (not to say there isn't plenty). There's an artistry at work that we're not used to seeing in a mainstream thriller in terms of the editing, performances, visuals and most memorably, an adrenaline fueled, pulse pounding score from the Chemical Brothers that couldn't possibly provide a better backdrop for many of the brilliantly choreographed action sequences.
Ronan's performance is flat-out unbelievable for precisely how impressively she handles Hanna's duality, shifting from scared little girl to trained assassin and back again at seemingly the drop of a hat. The underrated Eric Bana's greatest asset as Erik is his ability to invisibly slide into the fatherly role and not mind being upstaged by his younger co-star. As their nemesis, Cate Blanchett looks to be having the time of her life hamming it up as the "wicked witch" hunting the little girl, giving the kind of villainous performance that isn't too far removed from her work in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a few years ago (albeit this time in a quality film). Even while struggling a bit with what I think is supposed to be a southern accent, she makes Marissa Zeigler a cold, calculating perfectionist and I loved the small details that were put in to show that, like her obsessive dental hygiene and sterile apartment. She's a villain with an edge in a movie that not only feels edgy but also more "R" than "PG-13." Part of that could just have to do with the subject matter, though more of it probably has to do with presentation, visual style and tone.
There's one brief, but masterful performance that hijacks the movie and turns it into something darker and meaner. As Marissa's right hand man Isaacs, Tom Hollander almost seems to be channeling A Clockwork Orange's Alex if he were creepily reimagined as an effeminate tennis tracksuit wearing owner of a transvestite disco club. And how many villains have ever get their own catchy theme song, much less one so catchy even they whistle it? Hollander's total screen time probably doesn't even exceed 5 minutes but he makes each one of them terrifying, leaving the kind of indelible mark that deserves to be remembered come awards time.
If there's one small mistake hampering the script it's in revealing a key piece of information about Hanna that would have been better left unrevealed. One of the story's biggest strengths right from the gripping opening sequence was it's realism so there's disappointment in having a plot device introduced that's more common in a superhero or sci-fi movie, which this strives to be much more than. There's a thrill in believing for 2 hours that a young girl could be trained from an early age to do this stuff so providing a scientific explanation robs that notion of some of its mystique. If it's okay with the filmmakers I'll just pretend they never went there since that slight slip-up hardly hampers the enjoyment of the whole experience, especially with when you have an ending that not only makes ingenious use of an unconventional setting, but provides real closure. You can almost hear the book closing shut on the movie, concluding almost exactly as it began. But the best thing about Hanna is how it never seems to be wimping out in any way, taking risks while challenging the audience to appreciate details that push it out of the comfort zone we've come to expect from most mainstream action thrillers.