In “Hanna,” director Joe Wright successfully recycles almost every action movie trope of the past decade. From the seamless hand-on-hand combat to the appropriately frenzied soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers, the resulting adrenaline-packed vehicle delivers a multi-directional sugar rush. It moves so quickly that the bells and whistles blur together.
It’s a tightly packaged ride, which hardly makes “Hanna” a masterpiece. However, it does provide a nifty alternative to the inane narrative of “Sucker Punch,” a bloated and incoherent overload of visual splendor for which Wright himself has expressed disdain. And the small scale and unconventional protagonist allow “Hanna” some distinction when most of its contemporary brethren are loud, souped-up CGI spectacles. Not unlike last year’s “Kick Ass,” Wright’s movie revolves around a young girl trained to kill. However, “Kick Ass” embraced dime-store subversiveness — a 12-year-old breaking the necks of grown-up baddies — and “Hanna” centers on a much more nuanced character whose ferocity actually makes sense beyond her underlying badass appeal.
The titular 16-year-old (Saoirse Ronan, whose performance in Wright’s “Atonement” landed her an Oscar nomination at 13) has grown up in the icy wilderness of northern Finland, raised by her father Erik (Eric Bana) under mysterious circumstances. Gradually, it becomes clear that Erik has endowed her with startlingly potent self-defense skills, which come in handy when young Hanna decides she’s ready to venture into the world. There, she must face down trenchant FBI agent Marissa (an enjoyably icy Cate Blanchett). Erik, a former intelligence man himself, heads to a hiding place while Hanna follows the path he has set for her, nimbly escaping FBI captivity and set on murdering the woman allegedly responsible for her mother’s death. (That would be Marissa.)
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An eerily affectless child whose sci-fi origin story only becomes clear during the movie’s energetic conclusion, Hanna’s completely isolated childhood means that she views everything as a threat. Escaping from an underground military base in the middle of the desert, she hitches a ride with a traveling family and befriends their daughter, but turns immediately violent when the two girls go on a doubledate with some guys they encounter at their hotel and one of them makes the mistake of going in for a kiss.
This amusing moment is matched by Hanna’s expression of wonder when she first discovers electricity. But the screenplay by Seth Lochhead can’t possibly convey the extraordinary curiosity that registers on Ronan’s face. The movie belongs to her; check out those measured blue eyes and the dedicated stare on the “Hanna” poster that follows you around the room. Wright’s frenetic direction frames the performance with an appropriately swift pace.
Despite a few false alarms, Hanna generally has reason for concern. With Marissa and her henchmen on her tail — and her father attempting to reach her at a rendezvous in Germany — Hanna is constantly on the run, dodging bullets and hurling punches with ceaseless energy.
With its government goons and unstoppable heroine, “Hanna” walks and talks like an unofficial entry in the “Bourne Identity” franchise with ample doses of “Kill Bill”-style western pastiche. Wright’s earlier credits, including two mannered period pieces, may not have suggested this was his cup of tea. But now that he has found a groove, maybe he can rescue American action movies from the wasteland of boring spectacles and keep the focus where it belongs — in speedy timing and giddy payoffs. (Like “Source Code,” it never gets any bigger than it should be.)
Nevertheless, the eventual explanation for Hanna’s origin leaves much to be desired. The sensory experience doesn’t linger and the opportunities for exciting set pieces usually fade before they develop a backbone, since Wright insists on moving along. Unsurprisingly, “Hanna” loses touch with its strengths when it slows things down.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its offbeat premise and a star whose name still isn’t that widely known, “Hanna” may not become a box office smash, but should receive enough good reviews to perform decently in limited release and further solidify Ronan’s burgeoning career.
criticWIRE grade: B+
“Hanna” opens in theaters on Friday, April 8.