Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Small Assassin

The plot of Hanna (2011, directed by Joe Wright) makes me kind of roll my eyes. It's about an ex-secret agent who is raising his daughter off the grid somewhere in a barely sub-arctic wilderness so that she'll be tough enough to deal with the enemies the agency will inevitably send for them. This set-up is basically La Femme Nikita or Leon with a new coat of paint. The older assassin preparing a younger, female assassin is a relatively recent cliche, but it's a cliche none the less. But that's okay, I guess. It was Sam Goldwyn who once vowed that all his studio needed was a bunch of brand new cliches.

This is an upscale version of this trope. Joe Wright is the kind of director one expects to find making Oscar bait for Miramax based on his resume, but he wouldn't be the first respectable director to take an interest in genre. It doesn't even feel like he's slumming, because he doesn't treat it like it's genre, or if he does, he doesn't see any difference in the way it should be made. One example: at one point, our young assassin in training is on the run and has hitched a ride with the family of another girl, Sophie, who is roughly her age. She strikes up a friendship. This is played for its suspense value, of course, and the audience fears for the poor unsuspecting family, but it also provides the movie with an excuse to shrink things down to small, humane moments. In one of these moments, Hanna and Sophie are under a blanket talking as teen age girls might do, and they bond as best friends. This has NO plot function, but it enriches our understanding of these characters immensely. The movie populates its first two acts with these kinds of moments, whether it's a potential first kiss or Hanna letting the wind move her hand like an airfoil in the slipstream as she rides in a car. A pure genre movie would strip these moments out. Wright leaves them in.

Wright is good at filming action sequences, too. He's surprisingly in tune with his score when it comes to assembling these sequences, and they're cut to sync up with the beats of The Chemical Brothers music. The escape from the hidden James Bond supervillain lair--yeah, it's totally a supervillain lair--is one of the most visually arresting sequences I've seen in any action film in quite some time. It's fun to watch. The climax of the film suffers in comparison, but it's not bad. It's undone, I think, by the dreary weather in which it takes place. The overcast drains the life out of it, which is odd given that it takes place in a fairy tale theme park. You'd think this would be an opportunity for all kinds of stylistic fireworks, but it's not to be.

Saiorse Ronan is another of those preternaturally gifted child actors who shade a little bit into the uncanny. She doesn't have the weird, impossibly deep eyes of the Fanning sisters, but she's got the acting chops. Hanna is a totally preposterous character, but Ronan absolutely nails it in such a way that we not only believe that she's a superwoman assassin, but that she's a girl adrift in a world she knows only from books. She's ultimately invulnerable, but you get the feeling that she longs for real human feeling in the scenes with Eric Bana, playing her father, and Jessica Barden, playing the girl she befriends. You can also see it in the scene when she almost steals her first kiss, though the movie awkwardly breaks this spell when it lets her superwoman assassin persona surface, but that's not Ronan's fault. Bana is good, too, though he's playing a character he's played before. Cate Blanchett, the movie's wicked stepmother, on the other hand, is awful. She annihilates any chance that her character is either credible or menacing with an affected southern drawl. The wardrobe department has done her no favors, either, by having her done up like Dana Scully in the X-Files (which got me to wondering if Gillian Anderson wouldn't have been a better choice for the role, come to think of it). Most of the other characters fade into the background even when played by interesting actors. Olivia Williams is fine as Sophie's aging hippie mom but the part is small, while this is yet another movie where I didn't realize that Jason Flemyng was even in the cast until the credits rolled.

As I say, the first two acts of Hanna are really, really good, but it seems like the filmmakers ran out of ideas when it came time to film the climax. The setting--a theme park dedicated to Grimm's Fairy Tales--is a little too on the nose when it comes to articulating the movie's themes, while the villains never really seem particularly dangerous to Hanna. The end of the movie is foreordained: It calls back to the scene at the beginning of the film when Hanna kills a deer after wounding it with an arrow. "I just missed your heart," she tells it. I'm hesitant to say that the movie has the same kind of just-off-the-mark aim, but the filmmakers make it too easy. Give a girl a knife and she's gotta cut something, after all.

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