Hollywood so often uses foreign-accented types for its villains, and American media in general spends so much time bashing Europeans as cheese-eating surrender-monkeys, that it’s good to see ol’ Europe hitting back. “Hanna,” the slick new action thriller by Londoner Joe Wright, is the third film this summer to posit the CIA and U.S. military as the bad guys, following on the heels of “Essential Killing” and “The Ghost Writer.” The sour taste left by secret prisons, waterboarding and the like clearly seems to be lingering.
“Hanna” begins amid Arctic snow and ice, far from civilization; an extremely tough dude in furs (Eric Bana) is raising his teenage daughter, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan, “The Lovely Bones”), to hunt, shoot, and fight like the devil. Is her dad a survivalist? Maybe a Biblical rapture nut? Nope, he’s a former secret agent who’s gone off the grid. When he feels his daughter is ready, he produces a transponder and unlocks the box, telling Hanna, “If I flip that switch, it tells Marissa Regler where we are. She won’t stop till you’re dead.”
Marissa Regler (Cate Blanchett), as we learn through flashbacks, is the merciless CIA agent responsible for shooting Hanna’s mother; why she’s after Hanna is the mystery that drives the film. Soon enough, Hanna has been picked up by a masked U.S. commando team and “renditioned” to a secret underground prison, where Regler seeks some answers, and Hanna seeks Regler.
It’s not so much the plot, though, as everything else that winds up making “Hanna” such brilliant fun. The cast is excellent, with Blanchett in pure castrating fembot mode. She’s basically a fairy-tale evil stepmom in a suit; almost everything we need to know about this character lies in how she brushes her teeth till they bleed. Ronan plays a kind of holy innocent-cum-killing machine, bewildered and fascinated by a world she has never experienced while growing up in hiding; just watch her wonderful reaction the first time she sees live music performed. (And what other action thriller would allow a couple minutes of digression into a flamenco song simply because it’s great?)
Ronan also gets to have some fun in her scenes with Jessica Barden, playing a teen on vacation with her family in Morocco with whom Hanna tags along after escaping from the CIA’s clutches. Barden’s snarky pop-tart is a great foil for the feral Hanna, barely able to conceal her shock that Hanna’s priorities aren’t making out and pop star Justin Bieber.
It’s also intensely satisfying to watch the lithesome Ronan (convincingly) slug hulking military goons over twice her size. Director Wright, despite his art-house credentials (“Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice”), is no slacker when it comes to adrenaline-pumping action sequences, and there are plenty of those on offer here, the best being Hanna’s breathless breakout from a secret American prison set to strobing edits and a throbbing, propulsive score by techno duo The Chemical Brothers.
Wright and director of photography Alwin Kuchler take a sleek, allusive approach to the cinematography, lingering on certain scenes for a poetic pause before bursting into hyperspeed action, or letting the camera do a full 360-degree spin to suggest Hanna’s delirium as she flees her captors. Sheer visual beauty of the imagery is foregrounded way more than your average run-shoot-kick movie, and “Hanna” is refreshingly free of the choppy handheld techniques that have infected action cinema since the “Bourne” series introduced them.
In many ways, “Hanna” feels like an attempt to revive cinéma du look, the early 1980s movement in French cinema identified with directors Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson (although films such as Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” or Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” weren’t far removed). With its assassin father figure, Lolita-esque star and action sequences that are as notable for their stylish lighting as they are for the flying kicks, Wright’s film clearly owes a debt to Besson’s “The Professional” (known as “Léon” locally, and a perpetual favorite of Japan’s female filmgoers). The final chase scene, set amidst a derelict Brothers Grimm-themed amusement park full of swan boats and gingerbread houses is a whimsical touch worthy of Beineix in his “Diva” period.
It’s hard to consider “Hanna” as anything more than eye candy, but it’s certainly good-looking, fast-paced entertainment done with more flair than most. If there’s a sequel — and the ending suggests there might be — let’s hope Wright is kept at the helm.