Reviewed in April 2011
Director: Joe Wright. Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Jessica Barden, Aldo Maland, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Vicky Krieps, Martin Ruttke, Gudrun Ritter, Michelle Dockery, Mohamed Majd. Screenplay: Seth Lochhead and David Farr.
Twitter Capsule: Admittedly vacuous, but a rip-snorting display of pop flamboyance. Sure knocks Adjustment Bureau for high-concept sprinting.

Photo © 2011 Focus Features
Hanna tells the story of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) raised as a modern hunter-gatherer-warrior somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, with no one but the rich-tressed, hard-bodied Eric Bana for companionship. She can barely quell her impulses to get away from him, which offers the first of many hints that Hanna bears only a tangential relation to reality as we know it. "Sweetheart," I wanted to tell her, even if arrow-shooting, jugular-hitting, pistol-packing Hanna is nobody's sweetheart, "I know you think there's something better out there than you've got going now, but I beg to f***ing differ."

But Hanna knows that she has a looming date with destiny, i.e., with being freed into a world full of jumbo jets that occasionally roar overhead, full of all the languages her father has her learning, full of something called "music" that she can barely conceive, since Erik (Bana) has raised her almost exclusively on a reading diet of Grimm's Fairy Tales, when he isn't drilling her in the rapid-fire details of a falsified biography that Hanna must claim as her own once she heads south. We gather that this prospect will release all manner of hell, since her departure is announced by flipping a switch on a kitschy but portentous-looking electronic signal-box that Erik has left buried under the snow all these years. This box alerts Black Ops overseer Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), one of those Sinister Texans that are one of our major national exports to the movies, of Erik's and Hanna's whereabouts; for semi-disclosed reasons, he's set to skedaddle when she does. Why not flee without notifying Marissa? After all, that gal is one tough cookie, managing some unspecified but obviously malign deep-cover CIA enterprise from within an insanely architected subterranean bunker. We glimpse her in two short and strangely emphatic scenes while brushing and flossing her teeth, vociferous to the point of making her gums bleed; my theory was that she had just eaten Joan Allen's character from The Bourne Supremacy for breakfast, and was trying to flush the long blonde hairs out of her grill. In any event, Marissa is impossible to find unless she comes looking for you, and for reasons we can more or less intuit, she'll do anything to find Hanna, even if it means recruiting the help of Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a bleach-blond queen and the proprietor of a strip club staffed by she-male dancers. Hanna wants to be found by Marissa because, even though she's not the type to chat about her specific motivations, it's evident that Hanna wants to kill that gal, pron-to.

So: raise your hands if that entire précis sounds completely barking mad, and not just the part about willfully quitting an icebound version of the proverbial desert island that you share, quite alone, with Eric Bana. Hanna, visually and sonically energetic, unafraid of flamboyance, even more eager to entertain than to provoke though it does plenty of both, is also made exclusively of high-fructose corn syrup and doesn't make a lick of sense. These start feeling like bigger liabilities a day later, after you've told a half-dozen people they should rush to go see it, all before realizing that you can only reconstruct a few memories of what happens in it, and even fewer memories of why. In some ways, this works to the movie's advantage. No one would want to recall the absurd montage sequence in which Hanna hits an internet café and Googles up her life story. This sequence proves symptomatic of how Hanna, too adrenalized in its first half to care much about exposition, turns out to have a remarkably large appetite for backstory in the second half, when we'd much rather watch our central troika of equal but opposite badasses keep firing away at each other and managing deliriously unlikely escapes. Even once the retroactive exposition starts flying among Erik, Hanna, and Marissa, in alternating pairs, the movie falls short of ironing out exactly where Hanna comes from, or from whom, or why we should care.

Yet the pleasures of Hanna survive, and are neither psychological nor story-centered nor morally editorial, which is something of a feat given the core facts of who (or what) Hanna turns out to be. I thought often of Jaume Collet-Serra's more stylistically streamlined but comparably lurid Orphan, where a young girl of opaque origins is both an off-putting antagonist and an irresistible rooting interest in her standoffs with several adults, including a firecracking actress who looks completely game for the dubiously tasteful vehicle at hand. Admittedly, whereas Vera Farmiga was great beyond the call of duty in Orphan, Cate Blanchett is almost indistinguishably kicky and terrible in Hanna, but the performance works anyway. Rather than settle the question of whether or not Hanna is a work of shrewd craftsmanship or of irredeemable silliness, which is a question that's much more interesting when left open, Blanchett's studied but vulgar mannerisms encourage us to enjoy both possibilities at once. As prompted, too, by the ripely production-designed locations and the aggressive Chemical Brothers score and the outré makeup and hair, I kept asking how I'd respond to Hanna if Roger Corman had produced it and released it to drive-ins, under a title like Ludmilla, Markswoman of Yakutsk. What I mean is, in some strata of pop-movie culture, technically audacious luridness serves as its own badge of distinction, rather than posing a problem that the critic is expected to solve, or a moral quandary with which we should solemnly wrestle. If it weren't overseen by prestige-vendor Joe Wright, although his underseen The Soloist proved that he's interested in much more than industry awards and period costumes, I suspect that critics and cult fans would cede it more credit than some of them have.

I also keep reading that some people hate Hanna (a box-office success story, nonetheless) because it proposes a teenaged girl as an implacable agent of vengeance and violence. First, this actually isn't true: once Hanna starts thinking for herself, and acquires more context for her situation, it's clear that she is trying to make principled distinctions about how to act, toward whom. More importantly, Hanna holds back from making the character's competence as a programmed assassin entirely admirable or a basis for pure escapism. I felt more prodded to consider the unenviable choices involved in being who Hanna is than goaded to cheer as she high-kicks and hits her targets. Besides, are we sure it's indignation that this movie rouses, with its vision of a child who has been born into a life of reflexive self-defense, endowed with capacities for violence before she has been afforded a mature framework of thought, or a circle of peers to relate to? A child who has been systematically lied to about why she is the way she is and why the world is the way it is? Are we indignant or do we feel guilty? Do we resent having to entertain a figure like Hanna, even as a hyperbolic fiction, or are we sick at something we recognize in her: the child not as someone who comes into her own, but as someone whom adults have started "programming" from the moment they created her, while simultaneously debilitating almost any reasonable expectation she might hold for being happy, forming a unit, thriving into a future?

Despite these dark, unnerving thematic hooks, Hanna reminded me, too, of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Thirteen, maybe the most recent film that went this far in the direction of setting up a narrative scaffold as an unapologetically flimsy excuse for lavish, colorful, pop-art set pieces. If Ocean's distilled the bank-robber genre into a Brakhage-influenced immersion in color and movement, Hanna plays like a paean to the sustained sequence shot but also as an experiment in disruptive montage. For every sequence that keeps an impossibly complicated series of actions running without the aid of an edit, there's another like Hanna's first getaway from Marissa's lair that takes delirious pleasure in edits that take on a sensory life of their own: the action sequence as strobe-lit collage. Director Joe Wright, ingenious cinematographer Alwin Küchler (Morvern Callar), and other members of the filmmaking team seem to be reconnecting with the thrills of color, movement, sound, and image, while plainly exercising these talents on non-nutritious material that hardly merits more sober treatment. The approach pays off with, for example, the restive gradations of paranoia as Erik ducks into a subway station, or in more fly-by impressions like that of a fearsome hooligan pulling himself out of a crashed car, his body unfurling from the windowframe like an untied tongue. A nighttime action set-piece in a holding yard for tractor trailers hits delirious and quite literal highs.

Yet amidst all these mêlées, Wright, Küchler, the sound team, and the editors are also capable of generating, for example, an unexpected and tender snapshot of quasi-romantic or pre-romantic tenderness between Hanna and a young girl she befriends under farcical circumstances—less by way of implying that either girl is a lesbian than as a moving, gentle portrait of just how incipient Hanna's sense of her own longings, her own identity, actually is. You know it's all going to get cut short, in more than one way. She truly doesn't know who or what she is, and the questions feel enormously urgent—but, quite plainly, these questions feel equally confusing for the other girl, who didn't grow up with a bow-and-arrow butted against her shoulder. Up to this point, I hadn't much liked the broad-comic performance of the young actress Jessica Barden in this role of Hanna's friend and intimate, so it's all the more gratifying when the film takes such exquisite care with their inchoate, roseate feelings for each other.

Hanna is hard to take seriously, and even conceding that it doesn't need to be taken seriously, it botches its ending rather badly. But, in addition to the long passages of technical brio there are crucial moments of emotional sensitivity like that between Hanna and her friend that allow the movie to resonate—possibly more than it should, since it's so devoid of ideas, and ultimately hesitant about how to handle some key foundations of its own story. The direction is almost proudly uneven, and if it served up one more visual cue for us to Read the Film as a Fairy Tale, I might have gone looking for my own crossbow. Still, I'm hardly eager to turn my nose up at such a flavorful, energetic, contentedly schizophrenic surprise, one that succeeds in making Wright seem more relaxed and more interesting, and makes Küchler feel, again, like a plausible hire for big-Hollywood jobs. (Hollywood: take the note.) The movie feels alive in a thrilling way, sometimes even in a funny way, no matter how many of its thrills are cheap, confused, or diaphanous. It's unquestionably cinematic in conception, whereas Salt, for all its technical virtues and cheesy aplomb, still felt like something you could have read on an airplane and left in the seat pocket. Hanna pulls from deep and shallow bags of tricks, favoring the shallow ones, but the tricks mostly work. How often have you heard yourself saying that lately? Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
There might be no viable defense against critics who find Hanna showy and hollow, but the way the film trusts its audience to derive excitement from camera movement, lighting schemes, choreographies of movement, go-for-broke music, and sharp jolts of emotion (even discontinuous jolts) serves quite a calling card to our timid, logy action pictures. Not for nothing is this $30 million-budgeted movie pulling in pretty impressive attendance, and sparking more avid word of mouth than a lot of bonafide blockbusters. I may be overstating its staying power, but for what it is and for how it works, it's definitely an anomaly in the marketplace, and I'd like more movies to take a cue from this one. Hanna feels like it could have been based on a videogame, but with none of the deadening devices that movies actually based on video games often hawk. Points for guts, and points for crazy.
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Original Score (Chemical Brothers)

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