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Teenage Mutant Ninja

Virtuoso filmmaking, retro ­politics in a crisp thriller.

The era of the teenage action heroine is fully upon us. As pop-cultural correctives go, it's a mixed blessing. In one corner, you've got the jailbait fantasies of Donkey Punch and Kick Ass, which eagerly trade on notions of naughty girliness rather than transcend or interrogate them. In the other, you've got True Grit and now Joe Wright's Hanna, mainstream Hollywood adventure films that refrain from sexualizing or gender delimiting their young female protagonists. While the Coen brothers revisited a classic Western, Wright tells a tech-savvy fairy tale, replete with a wicked witch, uncertain parentage and chopsocky mixed martial arts. Yet despite its 21st-century trappings and proto-feminist protagonist, Hanna strangely reverts to reactionary politics as usual.

When we first meet 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan, a Tilda Swinton in training who trafficks in translucent skin and opaque emotions), she's a fierce huntress and winter warrior, disemboweling woodland beasts in between staged fisticuffs with her bearded and be-furred father, Erik (Eric Bana, a reliably soulful slice of beefcake). Stuck in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, she knows nothing of the larger world except for whatever paranoid Papa has taught her. Since even home-schooled ninjas have to grow up, Erik concedes to unearthing a long-hidden device that, if activated, will alert civilization — including avenging CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) — of their whereabouts. Hanna chooses the inevitable, prompting Erik to shave and flee in a pinstriped three-piece suit while special ops abduct his daughter. But it doesn't take Hanna long to escape a tricked-out underground lair, snapping necks, bludgeoning faces and embarking on a grim journey of self-discovery and self-defensive homicide.

After three well-behaved dramas — Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and The Soloist — Wright emerges as a surprisingly nimble action director. Rather than sloppily machine-gunning shots in the current Hollywood style, Wright prefers spatial continuity and a crisp, Kubrickian frame. For Hanna's breakneck subterranean emergence, texture and tension are created not through Ginsu editing but sculptural, strobe-like overhead lighting, as in an Exploding Plastic Inevitable show or a Mazda commercial. In one knockout stand-alone sequence, Wright tracks Bana and a mysterious follower into and out of a train depot, across a plaza and down a metro escalator before Bana dispatches four marauding goons, all in one elegant long take.

Tech-savvy fairy tale: Hanna, with Saoirse Ronan.
Focus Features.
Tech-savvy fairy tale: Hanna, with Saoirse Ronan.

But it's telling that such virtuosity is inconsequential to the larger story. Despite its handsome presentation and cinematic ingenuity, the film never really goes beyond superficial pleasures. Hanna's origin story isn't revealed until the end (via a supremely anti-dramatic Wikipedia search, no less), which keeps her estranged from us as well as from herself; whenever the disarmingly poised Ronan manages to narrow the gap, she's briskly undone by yet another blippy Chemical Brothers-scored chase sequence. But better to march forth than dwell on the dubious conservatism that undergirds Wright's tale. Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a baddie recruited to hunt down Hanna, is evil embodied as deviant gay Euro-trash, complete with bleached-blond hair, brightly colored track suits, short-shorts and loafers worn lightly. And though Blanchett is a riot as a Nordstrom-attired, Southern-drawled Brunhilde with scarlet helmet hair and aggressively white teeth, what ultimately makes her so harrowing — and so worthy of punishment — is her childlessness. "I made certain choices," Marissa says, desperately justifying her careerism, before she buries a bullet in a womb-sanctified old matriarch. Hanna is the one that got away and a genetically enhanced reminder of the miserable fate that awaits the ambitious, the infertile, the dentally preoccupied.

Wright piles on the fairy-tale signifiers for a Berlin-set finale, from a dingy gingerbread house and Big Bad Wolf amusement ride to witchy Marissa's screeching demise. In terms of craft and invention, Hanna has more going for it than most Hollywood genre films, but its achievements only magnify disappointment when it all builds to nothing more than a callback catchphrase. "I just missed your heart," Hanna says to her first and final conquests. Missed mine, too, if only just.

 
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