Joe Wright’s “Hanna” is an exuberantly crafted chase thriller that pulses with energy from its adrenaline-pumping first minutes to its muted bang of a finish. Not as richly imagined as one would hope in the final estimation, but entirely gripping while it lasts, this futuristic fairy tale announces Wright as an outstanding director of action, and Saoirse Ronan, in the title role of a teenage assassin, again proves a consummate muse. At times suggesting the genesis of an arthouse “Bourne”-style franchise, Focus release will require critical support to hit that elusive sweet spot where pulpy and rarefied tastes occasionally converge.
First seen stalking a deer through the woods in northern Finland, armed with a pistol, knife and bow and arrow, Hanna (Ronan) is clearly no ordinary 16-year-old. Possessed of an alabaster complexion and blue eyes that project intelligence and resolve, she lives in wintry seclusion with her widowed ex-CIA father, Erik (Eric Bana), who has reared her to be a soldier, prepared to run or fight at a moment’s notice. While Erik fears for her safety in the outside world, Hanna has grown impatient with their fugitive existence and craves the adventure she knows she’s been groomed for.
Agreeing to reunite in Berlin, the two split up, and Hanna soon falls into the clutches of malevolent intelligence agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett, sporting a loathsome red bob of hair). Interrogating her captive from behind one-way glass, Marissa betrays a disturbing fascination with the child, whom she recognizes as a formidable foe. And Hanna immediately proves how ruthless she can be, dispatching a succession of armed guards and escaping from the CIA compound, only to find herself stranded in the middle of the Moroccan desert.
The abrupt visual transition from cool blues to sun-scorched earth tones may remind the viewer of the glorious Technicolor moment when Dorothy realized she wasn’t in Kansas anymore, even if the image here provokes unease rather than wonderment. It’s one of many points at which scribes Seth Lochhead and David Farr consciously (at times self-consciously) evoke the world of fairy tales, from the witchy stepmother embodied by Marissa to the vaguely nightmarish funhouse that furnishes the film’s climax (Sarah Greenwood’s production design meshes brilliantly with the fine location work done in Finland, Germany and Morocco).
As in “The Wizard of Oz,” the heroine’s journey is studded with piquant supporting characters, namely Sophie (Jessica Barden, a delight), a tart-tongued British teen on vacation with her family. This interlude provides not only a thoroughly welcome comic respite but also a strongly affecting payoff as Hanna experiences her first brush with real friendship; tellingly, it’s through Sophie’s perspective that the film raises the uncomfortable question of whether we’re supposed to view Hanna as a snow-white heroine or a cold-blooded killing machine.
Indeed, the script’s militant daddy-daughter relationship is sure to generate comparisons to the similar dynamic in last year’s “Kick-Ass,” and online chatter has already hailed Hanna as a slightly older incarnation of Hit-Girl. The crucial difference is that while “Hanna” derives a major rush from the sight of a pint-sized girl punching, shooting and slashing her way to safety, it delivers the goods with a relatively straight face, sans smirks or chuckles, and it doesn’t shy away from the ethical ramifications of its twisted premise.
Hanna may fulfill the lusty girl-power fantasies of a certain segment of the audience, but Wright is every bit as invested in her outcome as the viewer is likely to be. In addition to the martial-arts training she undertook for the role, Ronan, as spirited here as she was in “Atonement,” endows the character with emotional and moral dimensions that the film, even at its most preposterous, takes seriously.
Though foreshadowed all along, the endgame falls short of the windup, not least because Bana’s tough-but-tender dad and Blanchett’s archly comic villainess, however effectively played, are ultimately conceived along thin, familiar lines. Hanna’s key dialogue in that deer-hunter prologue — “I just missed your heart” — could easily describe the film’s faulty emotional aim here. Inasmuch as it resembles a comicbook origin story, “Hanna” might have done well to save some of its disclosures for the putative sequel; certainly it could have used less of Tom Hollander’s louche performance as Marissa’s vile henchman.
But if the destination is a letdown, the ride is a consistently startling, even thrilling one. Wright’s past work has always breathed formal assurance, yet nothing quite prepares the viewer for the action chops he demonstrates here, as Alwin Kuechler’s dynamic widescreen compositions and a stimulating score by the Chemical Brothers provide a dazzling framework for Jeff Imada’s fight choreography. The long, sinuous tracking shots that the director made his stylistic signature in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” are fluidly and satisfyingly integrated into this combat-heavy context.