It’s funny to watch the marketing for ‘Hanna’, Joe Wright’s new little girl assassin film that opens this weekend, change and evolve. When the first trailers came out, the advertising emphasized the film’s weirdness – its spooky modern fairy tale feel, the angular font created specifically for the movie – whereas that aspect has been toned down recently. Out went the cool font, replaced by a more “action movie”-style chunky job, and the emphasis on the film’s action sequences has been intensified. Someone is spooked by the movie’s oddness, which is a shame. It’s a much better film than it appears; much weirder too.
‘Hanna’ opens on a snowy Scandinavian lake, with a hunter pursuing an elk. We see the elk running through the woods, and then out onto a frozen lake, where an arrow fells it. The hunter approaches the beast, and reveals the face of a young girl (Saoirse Ronan). “Just missed your heart,” she murmurs. “You’re already dead,” a man says behind her, holding a gun to her back. A brawl ensues and afterwards it’s revealed that the man (Eric Bana) is her father.
Hanna has been conditioned by her father to be the perfect killing machine – agile, cunning, and quick. He tells her that when she’s ready, she can flip a switch (a kind of magic red button) and men will come for her, and she’ll be able to face down her greatest opponent – Marissa (Cate Blanchett), the woman responsible for her father’s exile from society. So… she flips the switch. And it all goes to shit.
The rest of the movie is essential a chase film, with Hanna captured and brought to “Holding,” a mysterious tank deep in the desert. She promptly escapes and goes on the lam, hiding out with a nomadic hippie family led by Olivia Williams. Not only is Hanna running from Marissa, but she’s also being hunted by a kind of ambi-sexual German killer (Tom Hollander from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean‘) who Marissa has employed. It’s the kind of breathless, on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense stuff that’s rarely seen in mainstream action films.
But a mainstream action film is not what ‘Hanna’ is. It’s a thriller, for sure, but it’s significantly weirder than most thrillers. There’s an odd, implacable pace to the film, in which things are always escalating and cascading on top of one another. You can’t ever calm down because there’s something explosive and impossible just around the corner. This is aided by the Chemical Brothers’ block-rocking soundtrack, in which fat beats add jet fuel to already tense sequences.
There are also odd, off-putting character flourishes (Cate Blanchett has an obsession with oral hygiene and shoes, and there’s a character who lives in an abandoned amusement park) as well as a thick shellacking of fairy tale mythology. In the ‘Hanna’-as-fairy-tale reading, Blanchett is the wicked witch, Tom Hollander is the big bad wolf, Saoirse is the princess… You get the idea. When, in the film’s finale, Blanchett walks out of a giant wolf’s head, it isn’t just a strikingly clever image; it’s downright brilliant.
That’s how I felt about all of ‘Hanna’, really. This could have been your typical action movie; in plot, it’s only a few degrees away from one of those flicks that premiers on HBO on Friday nights instead of Saturday. But director Joe Wright, previously known for prestige fair like ‘Pride & Prejudice‘ and ‘Atonement‘, brings a graceful, nimble touch to the material. He shoots the action sequences in long, fluid shots instead of the cinematic palsy that’s gripped action filmmaking post-‘Bourne’. It’s his off-kilter approach that makes ‘Hanna’ such a special, one-of-a-kind movie. There’s as much heart in it as there is ass-kicking. And there’s plenty of ass-kicking.