For a series that starts with Joel Kinnaman punching a dude in the face, while he’s on fire — inside a furnace — “Hanna” is a gritty and serious approach to a story that could be supremely ridiculous. Like the 2011 Joe Wright-directed film of the same name, this serialized adaptation tracks a 15-year-old girl raised in the wilderness to be a lethal, possibly even superhuman, killing machine. Yet instead of elevating her skills to superhero levels, David Farr’s script sticks to the same just-north-of-realistic approach as Farr’s movie did (yup, he co-wrote that, too), while still delivering all the ass-kicking spy action fans can hope for. Also, not for nothing, this is the best use of Kinnaman since “The Killing.”
…which is kind of fitting, since one of “Hanna’s” hooks for TV fans is a reunion of “The Killing’s” two stars. Kinnaman plays Erik Heller, a CIA agent who goes rogue to rescue a baby from an undisclosed government facility. His escape plan goes south — thanks to the dogged pursuit of Marissa Wiegler, played by “The Killing’s” Mireille Enos — and Erik disappears with the baby into the woods. His pursuers think he’s dead, but 15 years later he reemerges with Hanna (Esme Creed-Miles), who he’s been training to fend for herself (among other things) in the remote European wilderness.
Kids will be kids, and this Jeremiah Johnson-like living situation can’t last forever, so “father” and “daughter” soon find themselves on the run. This is the essence of the show: always moving, and moving fast. Directed by “Legion” and “Room 104” helmer Sarah Adina Smith, who shows a flair for frozen outdoor landscapes and quickly cut but easy-to-follow fight scenes, “Hanna” builds self-perpetuating momentum that proves sustainable after three episodes. Tension built into the script is nicely illustrated onscreen, as longer takes are slowly broken down, spaces between edits lessen, and then bam! The action explodes, and the detonation is made all the better because we’re prepped for it.
Just as important is how this observant pacing keeps the energy up throughout each episode. “Hanna” is extremely efficient, making it the second straight Amazon drama to make the most of its runtime. “Homecoming,” Sam Esmail’s excellent adaptation of Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s podcast, clocked in at a mere half hour per episode, making it an anomaly in the golden age of television — where prestige dramas were more likely to fly past 60 minutes than dare cut themselves off 10 minutes early.
Episodes of “Hanna” don’t run that short, but the first episode is a mere 48 minutes, No. 2 is 47, and the third is well short of an hour. That’s a good sign for a thriller, especially one based on a film and adapted by a screenwriter. Projects extending a story to eight or more installments that have already been told well in one sitting tend to be bloated, at one point or another, and writers versed in film structure can struggle keeping the narrative tight when they’re given five times as many pages to fill. Though the story matches the film’s very closely, Farr appropriately fleshes out his characters to justify spending more time with them and builds a broader backstory than just a father and daughter vs. one rogue CIA agent.
Plus, he actually writes the series like it’s a TV show and not an eight-hour movie. Each entry passes what I like to call the “Friends” test, which means the unofficial episode titles can double as a succinct description of what that hour is about. There’s “The One Where They Live in the Woods,” “The One Where Hanna Makes a Friend,” and “The One Where Mommy and Daddy Try to Kill Each Other.” (Don’t take those parental titles literally, mind you — it’s just the easiest way to see Kinnaman and Enos’ characters.) Judging an hourlong action-thriller by its adherence to a ’90s broadcast sitcom may seem like a silly standard, but it’s an effective shortcut for gauging how well a show implements effective episodic storytelling. “Hanna” passes the “Friends” test, and it’s a better series for it.
Oh, and as for Kinnaman — an actor whose frigid post-“Killing” turns have been increasingly less compelling — perhaps the German accent suits him. Asked to do more with less words, he finds an intriguing middle ground between his old manic, loose-lipped detective and his more recent tough guy military types. Enos remains a more compelling silent figure; her Marissa is cloaked in secrecy through the first three hours, so her additions to the role are subtle. (Also, there’s no need for Cate Blanchett comparisons, because what’s the point?) Creed-Miles is the standout, but Kinnaman holds his own in this three-player adventure, and he didn’t even have to go back to his snarky, louder roots to do it. Maybe all it took was punching the right guy, the right way, into the right furnace.
“Hanna” premiered its first two episodes at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. The full first season debuts in March on Amazon.