There are almost as many different parenting styles as there are parents, and it’s difficult to say that one method is inherently better than another. The title character in “Hanna” is a teenage girl who’s been trained by her father to be a deadly assassin. You could argue that this is no way to raise a child — but hey, at least he’s spending time with her. So many fathers don’t.
This sure-footed action thriller, set to a Chemical Brothers techno score, has basic similarities to the Jason Bourne series, “The Professional,” and “Kick-Ass,” though it doesn’t feel derivative of anything in particular. It actually feels like something that would have been based on a graphic novel, but it wasn’t. (The original screenplay is by Seth Lochhead, with rewrites by David Farr.) It definitely doesn’t feel like something from Joe Wright, the director of genteel fare like “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” but it is. See? The world is full of surprises.
With a dark sense of humor and somewhat surprising confidence given his inexperience with the genre, Wright introduces us to Hanna, who is played by Wright’s marvelous “Atonement” discovery, 16-year-old Saoirse Ronan. Hanna lives someplace Nordic and desolate, with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), her only human companion. She has evidently lived here in the frozen forests most of her life; she’s never heard music, and what she knows of the world she’s learned from encyclopedias. But Erik, clearly a loving father, has taught his daughter well. In addition to the obviously necessary wilderness survival skills, he’s trained her in several foreign languages, plus hand-to-hand combat, weapons handling, and killin’. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of Hanna when she goes through her rebellious teen phase.
Erik warns Hanna about an American intelligence agent named Marissa Wiegler, played by Cate Blanchett in a red wig and a Clarice Starling accent. “She won’t stop until you’re dead. Or she is,” he tells her. Not much chance of running into her out here in the hinterlands, of course. But Erik has been training Hanna for a particular mission that will mean putting herself in danger. Soon she is in CIA custody. Soon after that, she is not.
Much of the film has Hanna making her way through North Africa and into Spain, trying to reach a rendezvous point with her dad while evading Marissa Wiegler’s goons. Since she is not Jason Bourne but rather a 16-year-old girl, she has to travel in a somewhat improvisational manner, tagging along with an English family on holiday. The parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng) are the hilariously liberated touchy-feely type, the kind who let their kids do whatever they want as a means of expressing themselves. Their daughter, Sophie (Jessica Barden), is Hanna’s age, and is about as spoiled and disrespectful as you’d expect a 16-year-old with no boundaries to be. Her little brother, Miles (Aldo Maland), is better.
Yet this family, for its peculiarities, is basically happy and functional. They’re on a long vacation together. This is certainly more warmth and affection and laughter than Hanna is used to. She loves her dad, but she’s never experienced moms or sisters or brothers. She’s like a wild animal being domesticated — and she likes it.
Don’t worry if this sounds too warm and fuzzy. Both “Hanna” the movie and Hanna the girl have butt-kicking as their primary objective. Similarities to the Bourne series end when you look at the way Wright shoots the fight scenes: with methodical camera movement, clear action, and tight editing. In principle, it’s the same way he shoots his lovely period pieces, that principle being to use movement and editing in the service of the story, to make the viewer have a particular emotional reaction. Wright can be showy at times, but the style is a welcome change from the handheld cameras and rapid-fire cutting that have been predominant in the action genre.
It also helps us appreciate Saoirse Ronan, whose skills as an actress — emotional and physical — are impressive indeed. Often photographed in close-up, she has ample opportunity to convey all the emotions of Hanna’s situation. Hanna is a trained killer, sure, and there are adrenaline-based pleasures in watching her handle people twice her age and size. But she’s also a scared, vulnerable girl. The movie’s best scene (unfortunately spoiled, somewhat, by the trailer) shows us both of these sides almost simultaneously. Ronan holds her own with Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana as well as Hanna does with her pursuers.
So the movie is good, and does more or less what it sets out to do. But it never quite jelled, for me, into anything more powerful or resonant than a cool, pulpy action flick. That isn’t a flaw, necessarily; it just means that instead of being eager to watch it again soon I’ll be eager to see what Saoirse Ronan and Joe Wright do next.
B (1 hr., 51 min.; )