Once there was a German thriller called "Run Lola Run" in which its heroine does much running. This made me think that the new thriller starring the adept Saoirse Ronan should have been called "Run Hanna Run" instead of just plain "Hanna." Ronan's Hanna, after all, expends a great deal of her screen time sprinting. She also takes up quality time kickboxing, garroting, and body slamming. She's an all-purpose fighting machine who happens to look like a blue-eyed, porcelain-skinned pixie.
The disjunction between Hanna's looks and her lethal jabs is, visually, what this movie is all about. Unlike Hit Girl, the underage heroine of the egregious "Kick-Ass" with whom Hanna will inevitably be compared, Ronan's 16-year-old is no foul-mouthed brat.
She is, in fact, an innocent, raised in complete isolation in the forested wilderness of northern Finland by her widowed, ex-CIA agent father, Erik (Eric Bana). For reasons that are somewhat murky, she has been trained by him in total isolation since childhood to be the perfect assassin. When the time comes for her to infiltrate the "real" world, she is as wide-eyed as Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz. (This film is bound to give the home-schooling movement a bad name, unless, of course, you're running a home school for assassins.)
Director Joe Wright, who previously worked with Ronan on "Atonement," shoots much of the movie through Hanna's eyes, and everything she sees has a storybook glamour and, more often, a storybook terror. The explicit – overexplicit – references to Grimm's fairy tales emphasize the film's cockeyed sense of free-floating dread.
Hanna is a fast learner. Detained by the CIA under the hawklike gaze of career agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett), who also happens to be her prime target, Hanna slices and dices her way to freedom – of a sort. She is never far from captivity, as murderous agents stalk her across Morocco and beyond. The pathos of the situation is that Hanna, who is experiencing for the first time everything from music to light bulbs to kissing, has no time to savor any of it. Run Hanna Run.
Wright and his screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr aren't quite up to the task of turning Hanna's world into a scary fun house fantasia. (Blanchett's agent, with her bobbed red hair, overdoes the Wicked Witch sneers.) On the other hand, I'm glad someone like Terry Gilliam, with his rampaging overinventiveness, wasn't in charge. Wright films Hanna's various battles, and Erik's, in long, extended sweeps of the camera, so that we always know where everyone is situated in the frame.
The battles don't always build up to anything wonderful, and the climactic scene isn't as thrilling as several that came before, but I didn't feel, as I often do in modern-day action films, that I was getting seasick watching them.
Wright also preserves our essential puzzlement about Hanna, who is preternaturally odd even when she seems most human. He and Ronan don't sentimentalize her, even in the sequences when she hooks up with a vacationing family in Morocco and befriends their spunky daughter, Jessica (the excellent Jessica Barden, from "Tamara Drewe"). Friendship is a new thing for Hanna but she doesn't overvalue it – she knows friends can slow her down.
Is there a moral objection to be raised about a movie that features a teenage girl as an assassin? I suppose there is, but I couldn't find it in me to object. Perhaps that's because Hanna is not quite human – her DNA was altered at birth as part of a covert CIA experiment. But more likely it's because the filmmakers do indeed regard her as human, and so we empathize with her fear and panic and yearning, however incomprehensible they often appear to herself. The filmmakers do not, in other words, exploit Hanna as a kinky action toy, à la "Kick-Ass."
This enlightened attitude will probably be short-lived. "Hanna," alas, seems all set for a sequel. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material, and language.)