Monday, April 11, 2011

HANNA: Teen Angst Turns Deadly

- Hanna has a lot going for it, and in many ways it's a real breath of fresh air at the movies. Over the last several years, we've seen an ever-widening gap between the huge mega-blockbusters that the big studios put out and the small, ultra-low-budget indie flicks that clutter the arthouse cinemas. It's the rare movie these days that combines the thrills and high-concept action of the average blockbuster with the experimentation, pacing, and stylization of the indies. But here is Hanna - a balls-out, breakneck action movie that also has a unique, quasi-artsy, Euro flair. Hanna doesn't 100% succeed at everything it tries, but give it credit - it tries. From the first, stunningly-shot moments of this movie, you know you're in for something a little different, a little more cerebral, a little more experimental than the usual high-gloss Hollywood action flick.

Hanna is a tale of innocence lost, with a pace, theme, sensibility, and visual style that reminded me a lot of Luc Besson movie's like La Femme Nikita and Leon The Professional. When we first meet Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) , she is living in the middle of nowhere with her ex-CIA father, Erik (Eric Bana). In the snow-covered wilderness, Erik has kept the now-teenaged Hanna isolated from society for her entire life. He alone has taught her and trained her how to survive. He's taught her to read and write and speak several languages - but also how to fight, how to hunt, how to kill. Erik is training his daughter for the inevitable day when the government comes after her (for reasons that remain a mystery for the early part of the film). He has, it appears, trained Hanna to be a nearly superhuman warrior.

Hanna grabs you right from the get-go, and the movie is particularly hypnotic in those early scenes, where you're not quite sure what the hell is going on. We are captivated by Ronan and Bana - who are these people? How long have they lived alone like this? To what end is Bana training this slight girl to be a trained fighter and killer?

The movie only gains more steam when the day finally comes where Hanna turns on a tracking signal that alerts the government to she and her father's location. At this point, we still don't really know their plan, or why the government is after them. All we can do as an audience is sit back and marvel at the stunningly shot action and chase scenes from director Joe Wright. As heavily-armed black-ops units descend on Erik and Hanna's remote hut, we get our first full taste of Hanna's Batman-like ability to kick ass. Soon afterwards, as a captured Hanna is carted off to a highly-guarded and secret government facility, the movie takes on a sleek, semi-trippy-60's spy-movie vibe. A dash of Nikita, a bit of The Prisoner thrown in for good measure. It is here that we meet Marissa (Cate Blanchett), the icy agent who's made finding Hanna and Erik her personal mission (for reasons yet to be revealed). There is a sequence where Hanna attempts to escape the facility that is pure action-movie bliss - warped camera angles, nonstop action, pulsating music from The Chemical Brothers, and a driving intensity that made me sit up in my chair. Wow, now *this* was something new - something positively badass.

Unfortunately, HANNA never again reaches the heights of those early sequences. As the movie goes on, it seems to lose a fair amount of momentum. Hanna stows away with an amusingly liberal British family and befriends their bratty-but-well-meaning teenage daughter. She dodges an effeminate German hitman and his goons - hired by Marissa to find and capture this clearly special girl. And, as the movie sprints towards its endgame, we get several exposition-heavy scenes that lay out Hanna's all-too-familiar origins - giving her a semi-intriguing backstory that nonetheless will have a been-there, done-that feel for those of us who've seen our share of action movies. The fact is, HANNA works best when its weird, trippy, and mysterious. Once it becomes more of a coming-of-age story in its second act, and a standard-issue action movie in its third act, it remains entertaining, but loses that aura of "whoa-what-the-hell-is-going-on" intrigue that gives it such a strong and memorable opening.

But man, what a lead performance from the aptly-named Ronan. Despite her small frame and cherubic features, you absolutely believe that she could be a cold-hearted super-assassin. This is certainly a landmark, breakthrough performance for her as an actress - she is totally captivating during every moment she's on-screen. Similarly, Eric Bana is just plain badass in this one - perhaps his best role since Munich. He doesn't get as much screentime in the second half of the film, but when he is front and center, he brings a driven, Christian Bale-like intensity to his scenes. He also gets in one particularly awesome subway-set action scene that is shot with kinetic flair by Wright. Blanchett is basically always great, but in this one I will say I found her character a little too much of a blank slate. She never really 100% worked as a villain - and her strange-sounding Southern accent didn't really do much for me either. Much better were the love-to-hate-'em German baddies who Blanchett sends after Hanna. Like a more serious version of the Nihilists from The Big Lebowski, these guys were scene-stealers through and through.

I guess my other main issue with HANNA is simply that it seems to be trying a little too hard to be artsy at times, to the point of being a bit of a distraction towards the end of the film. It's funny, I mentioned how the opening act of the movie has this great, weird, trippy vibe. Well, it's almost like Joe Wright makes this last-ditch effort to recapture that towards the movie's end, but stumbles trying to do so. A whacked-out couple of sequences set in an old, abandoned, fairy-tale-themed amusement park just feel like too much - too self-conciously trippy, a bit heavy on the symbolism of Hanna-as-fairy-tale-character-gone-wrong. I think some of the movie's main shortcomings probably lie in the script, which doesn't quite seem to know what to do with its plotline or characters. When HANNA's script serves as a loose spine for Joe Wright to dazzle us with his visuals - that's when it really pops. But the movie's big reveals and twists are ultimately pretty ho-hum, and you wonder if the movie might have benefitted from keeping things a bit closer to the vest.

Overall though, HANNA is a pretty badass little action movie that has a very unique style and sensibility. The movie is visually amazing - it looked spectacular on the big screen at the Arclight theater in Hollywood. And those visuals - when they're at their most mesmerizing and disorienting, and combined with that great Chemical Brothers soundtrack - really do grab you and suck you in to this strange world of teen-girl super-soldiers - of intrigue and cover-ups and mystery. Personally, whatever criticisms I have of HANNA, I'm excited to see a little movie like this make such a splash at the box office. This is the kind of movie that is the perfect alt-action-flick - an example of how to make a badass action-thriller without being cookie-cutter and generic.

My Grade: B+

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