Megaplexes have been littered with cold-blooded, hyper-stylized, smirkily transgressive meta-thrillers in recent years, from Wanted to Kick-Ass. But the latest entry in the Everybody Wants To Be Brian De Palma Sweepstakes, the teenage-assassin saga Hanna, is also one of the best — largely because director Joe Wright makes its hitman superheroics more chilling than cool.
Essentially home-schooled by her dad (Eric Bana) in the ABC's of hand-to-hand combat, weapons training and black-ops wet work, the adolescent heroine (Saoirse Ronan from Wright's Atonement) emerges from the frozen Arctic like a cross between Sissy Spacek's Carrie and the Terminator. Her prey — secret agent Cate Blanchett, a sharp-dressed steel magnolia who accessorizes with handguns — actually thinks she's the hunter, until the wraith-like waif wipes out a roomful of agents and takes off for parts unknown.
TV's Alias played a similar setup for kicky thrills, while Kick-Ass deployed its pint-size mankiller for queasy kid-in-peril laughs (as if to say, "Ain't we stinkers?"). Wright, working from a Seth Lochhead-David Farr script, flashes a bleak wit but keeps the tone admirably cold. Coded into the movie is a black-humored metaphor for tiger-mom/dad parenting meant to toughen kids up for the adult world. Fairy tales figure into the plot — not as totems of childhood, but as grown-up uses-of-enchantment warnings about the wolves waiting (literally) in Grandma's house. But does this produce a human being, or a functioning cog? Death carries a sting here as the toll mounts, fed by friends and innocents who resist such robotics. The weight of all that business-like killing registers in the three lead performances' varying levels of dehumanization.
Wright's camera gymnastics, so obtrusive in Atonement, here evoke the constant presence of danger. A single-shot set piece involving a subway ambush glides confidently from stalking to entrapment to mayhem — kudos to ace cinematographer Alwin Kuchler — but the emphasis is on the target's life-or-death desperation, not the director's (admittedly impressive) skill at snapping the moving parts into place. (Here, as throughout, the Chemical Brothers' abrasive electronic score works like sandpaper on your nerves.)
It helps that the performers are so committed — especially Ronan, whose feral intensity hurtles the movie past its myriad implausibilities. Not only will you believe a kid can kill with Jason Bourne-like efficiency, you might actually care.
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