Not your average hit girl ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Not your average hit girl

My rating:

I have not watched Atonement or Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright's two previous films. But from what I've heard of them, I know he's an unusual choice to helm an action movie - and Saoirse Ronan an unusual choice to play an action heroine. Which is all good to me. I love action movies, but I especially love it when one tries to do something fresh and new with the genre. I'd heard that Hanna was one such attempt, and glowing reviews from Roger Ebert, James Berardinelli and io9 made me look forward to it a great deal - and disappointed that it took 3 months after its U.S. release to make it here.

But the wait was well worth it. This is a textbook example of how a formulaic premise can be given a terrific new coat of paint.

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has lived her entire life in a cabin in the snowy wilderness of Finland, accompanied only by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) who has trained her to be an assassin. When she says she is finally ready, he sends her on the mission she has been preparing for all her life - to find and kill CIA agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). For the young girl, coping with the outside world - of which she has only learned from an encyclopedia whose every word she has practically memorised - proves as much a challenge as killing and evading Marissa's men. But she finds a friend in British teenager Sophie (Jessica Barden), who introduces Hanna to her bohemian family travelling in a camper van. In the meantime, Marissa engages her own assassin in Isaacs (Tom Hollander) to find Hanna while she hunts down Erik.

Yes, I said it's a formulaic premise, and truth be told I didn't even notice it till near the ending. Its fish-out-of-water scenes - in which Hanna deals with both modern amenities like light switches and television, as well as her interactions (calling them "conversations" wouldn't be apt) with the motormouthed and hilariously bimbotic Sophie - recalls any number of, well, fish-out-of-water movies. Its revelation of the deep dark secret of Hanna's origin, as well as her reaction to it, comes off as somewhat obligatory. There aren't any real surprises to the plot, right up to its ending.

But again, I didn't notice, because for much of its running time I was too busy trying not to fall off the edge of my seat. Wright does some amazing things with tried-and-tested action-thriller tropes, turning what may have been routine action scenes in the hands of a workman director into superbly stylish and thrilling sequences. Hanna's escape from a gorgeously James Bond-ish secret CIA installation, Erik's single-tracking-shot fight scene with multiple assailants in a subway station, even the flashback of how Marissa intercepted Erik during his initial escape from her clutches with the infant Hanna, are all amazingly cool and frequently employ filming techniques I've never seen before. The end result is a film that absolutely drips with suspense, that pulls off the remarkable feat of making a formulaic story feel unpredictable.

Wright's approach also extends to taking the emotions of the story seriously, particularly Hanna's. I'm surprised more reviews haven't compared this film to Kick-Ass; the idea of a sweet-looking teenage girl raised to be a cold-blooded killer is the first similarity that came to my mind. This is a far more serious and thoughtful approach to the premise than Matthew Vaughn's adolescent comicbook fantasy; even when Hanna's bewilderment at the world is played for laughs, her reaction to everything she's learning is always clear and well-drawn. (Her discovery of music, something she has only known as its dictionary definition, is subtle yet beautiful.) There's also the film's constant allusions to fairy tales, giving it a layer of metaphor and allegory that is once again something so very rarely done with action movies.

And there's the acting. Ronan is as new to action movies as Wright; not only is she a perfect combination of innocent and deadly, her performance is remarkably controlled. Hanna may be trained since infancy to kill, but she cannot help displaying all her new and unfamiliar emotions on her face, and Ronan plays them beautifully. Cate Blanchett also makes a terrific icy, tightly wound villainess, yet given to the occasional scenery-chewing sneer; she also sports a Southern accent that sometimes slips and is probably meant to. Tom Hollander gets to be flamboyant as the fey German mercenary Isaacs, and makes for a pretty damn scary antagonist. Only Eric Bana gets little chance to make as big an impression as the rest of his castmates.

The only misstep - and it's not a minor one - is the unsatisfyingly abrupt ending. (What happened to Sophie and her family?) It almost made me knock a half-star off my rating, but freshness and inventiveness in one of my favourite genres counts for enough in my book to forgive it. Stylish, superbly crafted, possessing uncharacteristic depth and emotion - as well as a pulse-pounding Chemical Brothers soundtrack that could rival Daft Punk's for TRON: Legacy - this is one for connoisseurs of action films. (As opposed to those who think Michael Bay's style is the definition of the genre.) In fact, I'm keen on watching it again to see if I can catch all the layers and allusions. That is definitely not something you can say of very many action movies.

Expectations: thank you LoveHKFilm


McGarmott said...

Well guess what, Hanna is the lesser of the films that Joe Wright has done. You really ought to watch his first two that you mentioned, though I suspect you would find them less impressive than I did when I first saw them as some of what made those two masterpieces would've oozed into this film as well.

For Pride & Prejudice, I have never seen an English period drama directed with such potent forcefulness. I don't mean he does crazy stylish stuff with it, it still feels like a proper English drama with its witty and dense Austen-esque dialogue and classical-sounding music (one of the best scores of the last 10 years btw), but there are all these subtle little touches (the way he allows his characters to uncharacteristically giggle or make unexpected gestures, impressionistic pillow shots, the way dialogue is spit out rather than enunciated, etc) that made it different. Well English period dramas can often appear dry or emotionally cold, the ones done by Wright are emotionally suspenseful. This movie alone (his debut) placed him among the handful of film directors I consider among my favourites.

Hon said...

Is it wrong to think that Saoirse Ronan is hot.
Wait i checked, she is 17

TMBF said...

@Hon: In some countries, that's legal. :D

ZimSen Yeow said...

@Hon I just did too. Oh wow she is damn hot wei. I think is her blue eyes is what captures everyone.