Two very different movies opened in theaters last weekend: A medieval stoner comedy, if you can believe such a thing exists, and an action-thriller about a teenage girl who is also a killing machine.
“Sometimes, children are bad people, too.”
This movie was an absolute gem. I don’t want to spoil much, but the basic story is this: Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a teenager being raised in seclusion by her father (Eric Bana). He is training her to be an assassin and teaching her about an entire world she has not experienced (she has lived in the wilderness, with only her father, for her entire life). A CIA agent played by Cate Blanchett wants to capture them. Hanna goes into the real world, and the chase begins.
I wasn’t really looking forward to this movie, which is not to say I was dreading it or anything like that. Rather, there were just a lot of other movies that seemed more appealing to me and, had I compiled a list of “Must-See Movies in 2011,” this would likely not have cracked the top 30 films. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect two reasons: (1) Joe Wright’s three prior movies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement” and “The Soloist”) didn’t suggest somebody who was a natural fit for this kind of movie. He seemed to be more focused on the capital-P Prestige movies, the ones that let actors and scene designers compete for awards. And (2) the trailers, while nicely cut and everything, simply made it look like another movie about a young female killing machine. Going from “Kick-Ass” and “Let Me In” to this and onto “The Hunger Games,” it just seemed like an odd little sub-genre exploiting the inherent dissonance found when an innocent young girl likes to brutally assault people. That’s fine, if you like that, but it didn’t really rev my engine. But I saw it, almost on a lark, almost out of absence of much else that looked particularly interesting at that particular moment in time.
And “Hanna” is phenomenal. I strenuously recommend this movie. If you were not thinking of seeing it (and, as I’ve explained, neither was I), trust me, it’s terrific. The only downside to recommending it so strongly is that you might sit down with some kind of raised expectations, rather than the blank slate I brought to this movie (I knew the actors were going to be good and the trailer was interesting, and I knew the basic premise, and that was it), but that doesn’t matter because it will live up to that kind of hype.
It’s a really remarkable little film, somehow fusing the action-thriller framework with dark fairy tale underpinnings and winding up with a relentless yet precise piece of filmmaking. Things never stop moving forward, yet at no point do they rush through any development nor take any narrative shortcut. It’s a movie with well-developed characters, and rather amazingly for the thriller genre, the titular star is a young woman who is never required to be an object of sexual objectification. She’s simply a person, and the movie around her matches that mature nature of storytelling. A lot of credit has to be given to Wright, his cinematographer and his choreographers. Wright inventively captures the fight and chase sequences, giving us thrilling moments that are entirely navigable; unlike so many action movies these days, which rely too heavily on quick cuts and shakey-cam footage to make things look intense but really seem disjointed and incomprehensible, this movie’s action sequences have something approaching visual poetry. Wright has said he looked to dance to inspire his action scenes, and it shows, because these things are choreographed in such a pitch-perfect way that you can feel the focus that went into making every action and reaction seem real and visceral. He avoids cutting whenever possible, giving us lengthy takes that help give the film a more realistic feel. There is one particular scene involving Eric Bana moving through an airport where I watched, waiting for the cut, waiting for the seamless shift to a different edit, and it never came. They simply followed the scene from the beginning, through the action and right up until this particular (and outstanding) sequence had quieted and ended.
That these things are vividly orchestrated well can be attributed, in large part, to Jeff Imada, who served as fight and stunt coordinator on this film. He also served the same role on Paul Greengrass’s two “Bourne” films, but here the editing and camerawork keep things stable as opposed to frantic. Wright’s cinematographer, Alwin Kuchler, has never made a movie with this level of action (the closest peer was Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” so, nothing similar), and this newness to the form seems to enable a fresh set of eyes documenting the proceedings.
The way Wright and Kuchler capture Hanna is illustrative of their care as well as the power of their star. Ronan moves across the screen like an animal at first, an alien unsure of her surroundings. The young actor, who was Oscar-nominated for her role in “Atonement,” is excellent as the girl who has heard of electricity and automobiles and music and all of these other modern trappings, but is experiencing them for the first time. She is framed as isolated and small, a lone figure amidst the snow or the desert or the water, and this allows the rare moments where she fills the screen to have more power. Her psychic drama playing out before us, Ronan’s face registers just enough for us to know what’s going on without ever overstepping into Ack-Ting. She’s quite excellent
The music here was perhaps the nicest surprise. The Chemical Brothers provide a score that works in perfect harmony with the action, building up to precise crescendos to match what’s on-screen while never succumbing to that overbearing DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN cannon fire that seems ubiquitous in action movies these days. I suspect somebody who is so inclined could enjoy this movie if they focused more on the aural treats than the visual cues, because the score is that fleshed out and propulsive.
The two key adults in the film, Bana and Blanchett, are as good as always. Bana has long excelled at playing the vengeful, coiled man who eyes the world in terms of wrongs that need righting, so he’s in his element here. Blanchett is reliably solid in a role that I could not stop thinking Tilda Swinton would have killed (it’s the red hair, I guess) as the brutal CIA agent on their tail, though her character never develops any additional dimensions (beyond certain implications made during the unspooling of the film’s narrative). That they are not wondrous beyond words isn’t really vital; they are every bit as good as they need to be and nothing more. But the class of actors playing these roles should give you an idea about the caliber of film here.
Really, see this movie. As soon as you can.
* * *
I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed by this movie, which might be my own fault. It was never sold as anything other than a loving homage to the “Beastmaster”-esque sword-and-sorcery cheese epics of the 1980s. I was never into those types of flicks. And yet, mostly due to Danny McBride and the other people involved, after watching that initial red band trailer, I guess I just thought it would be great. It’s not bad, by any means, but it’s certainly not great.This movie is exactly what it looks like: a goofy, delightfully vulgar little romp involving witches, wizards, quests, creatures and swordplay. McBride, who co-wrote the screenplay, is clearly paying homage to those 1980s movies rather than outright spoofing them, which is a good idea in theory (because it doesn’t get bogged down in references) but not a great one in execution (because not a lot of people loved those movies).
I suspect that McBride’s comic persona is like Russell Brand’s — you love him or you hate him, because it’s hard to watch him take up this much screentime and have no opinion at all — but I think he’s just the best. Even when the movie trundles from set piece to set piece, waiting for the next joke, McBride never stops being McBride, which is tiresome if you don’t like him but enjoyable for those of us who think he’s great. There’s an attempt to thread an actual storyline through this, and most of the attempts at characterization and maturation coming from McBride’s relationship with James Franco. Franco, who is all smirks and heroic, simplistic bravado and is pretty good at those things, plays his much-more-dashing older brother. (Oh, right: In this movie, McBride and Franco are princes. McBride’s prince is a lazy stoner, Franco’s prince is a hero and enrolled in five different knight programs. Justin Theroux, who is terrific, plays a wizard who kidnaps Franco’s beloved Zooey Deschanel. They head on a quest to rescue her. Natalie Portman also shows up as the requisite tough guy.) It’s nothing approaching the relationship sketched out between Franco and Seth Rogen in 2008’s “Pineapple Express,” David Gordon Green’s last effort with these cats. (And yes, that’s the same guy who directed “All The Real Girls,” he makes movies like this now.)
Anyway, the movie itself is perfectly fine and enjoyable and everything. There are some really funny jokes (really, there are some great laughs here), some stretches where nothing happens, some inventive sequences and some very bizarre moments that will either work for you or they won’t. It’s not for everybody. It’s obviously going to enjoy a long life as a “cult comedy,” a label this thing was tagged with six months before release, living on in dorm rooms and suburban dens for eternity.