Home-Schooling an Assassin: A Hit-or-Miss Hanna

Over-eager in almost every way, Joe Wright's thriller keeps pressing scenes of deliberate, off-putting weirdness

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Alex Bailey / Focus Features

Saoirse Ronan stars as the title character in Joe Wright's adventure thriller Hanna

Hanna, Joe Wright’s action thriller about a teenager trained from childhood to be an assassin, is the movie you’d most want to see projected on monitors the next time you’re 23 and getting drunk at a nightclub. The pounding Chemical Brothers soundtrack would drown out the sillier parts of the screenplay, and you’d catch dazzling glimpses of apprentice killer Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) racing through Morocco’s dry heat or an abandoned East German amusement park. Her karate chops and kicks would inform your dancing. The movie would travel through your veins like a drug, doubling your good time.

But when viewed in more mundane circumstances — namely, a movie theater — Hanna’s buzz isn’t as pure. Over-eager in almost every way, the movie keeps pressing scenes of deliberate weirdness on us. Some of these oddball moments do work to illustrate our heroine’s sense of disorientation. Educated but socially almost feral, Hanna has never been out of the landscape near the Arctic Circle where she was raised — until suddenly she’s in the middle of a desert, face to face with a pushy English girl holding a parasol. (It’s like a passage out of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.) Other scenes feel more like something imagined by an over-caffeinated, under-confident David Lynch, as when Hanna’s target, the CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett), stops for reinforcements at a sex club featuring hermaphrodites. The only constant is Ronan (who also starred in Wright’s Atonement), who pours a dreamy concentration into her portrayal of Hanna. Her pale, almost pinched little face and steady, cornflower-blue eyes bewitch us even when the movie doesn’t. She’s ethereal, yet we never question her strength.

Once upon a time Hanna had a mother who looked like Kate Moss and gave her a big book of Grimm’s fairy tales. Then Hanna’s mother was murdered, and her heartbroken and obsessive father, Erik (Eric Bana), whisked her off to the frigid wilderness to prepare for revenge. For example, he wakes her up in the night by putting a gun to her head and seeing how fast she reacts. (Their father-daughter training is lot more somber than that of Kick-Ass.)

The lonely father and his lonely daughter keep discussing whether Hanna is “ready.” (Given Wright’s embrace of the theme and mood of Brothers Grimm tales, which are ripe with sexual subtext, this is vaguely creepy.) When Hanna is “ready,” she’ll lose the purity of her sheltered world and summon her target by pushing a lever on a creaky old machine that looks like something out of Lost’s ’70s segments. When that blood-red light flashes, somewhere across the world, Marissa goes on high alert. Marissa isn’t scared so much as she is tantalized; she feels some sense of ownership toward the girl.

As Hanna attempts to complete her mission, Wright whirls through scenes with a wild energy — and then, unexpectedly, turns the movie into a fish-out-of-water story. Erik has taught Hanna to speak every language from German to Arabic, but not what function a passport serves, how to turn on an electric switch or what normal kids are like. Being trapped in an underground bunker the size of the Pentagon doesn’t faze her, but when she first encounters that English girl, Sophie (Jessica Barden of Tamara Drewe), and her little brother, Miles (Aldo Maland), Hanna stares at them as if they were Martians.

The interlude that follows — Hanna’s travels with Sophie and her hippie parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng) — may strike some as a distraction from the important business of being a possibly-superhuman sylph kicking the stuffing out of grown men like Marissa’s No. 1 henchman (Tom Hollander, who wears yellow tracksuits and appears to have carefully studied Dennis Hopper’s Blue Velvet performance). But of all the surreal elements in Hanna, none pleased me more than this family, particularly Sophie’s habit of popping out of nowhere or her mosquito-like whining (“My fungal nail infection is back!”). Imagine Jason Bourne pausing in his race to Berlin for some Judy Blume-style coming-of-age time. These Brits are loons, but they also provide our first chance to empathize with the rather robotic Hanna. When she spies on them sharing laughs over dinner, we see real longing on her freckled face for regular family life.

That yearning is the emotional priority of Hanna, but the central conflict — Marissa and Hanna’s cat-and-mouse game — lacks urgency. Marissa is demonized as the childless career bitch who cares nothing for family; her brand of villainy is so cliched that it’s hard to scrape up a visceral desire to see her die.

Moreover, the Grimm echoes feel contrived. It is bad luck for Wright to be opening his fairytale flick right after the abysmal Red Riding Hood, but the problem is bigger than timing. It’s all so broad — on multiple occasions, he has Blanchett do some brushing and flossing, as if she’s the Big Bad Wolf preparing for her succulent supper of girl. The interminable, climactic fight scene itself is engineered to give us time to admire the work of the location scout who found just the right setting to maximize the Grimm business. All this arch obviousness comes at a cost. It’s a feast for the eyes, but we’re still hungry.