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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Hanna

(Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.-U.S.: Joe Wright, 2011 (Universal)

Hanna, an action film for people who love action movies and also for some who don’t, is Kick-Ass and The Bourne Identity filtered through Pride and Prejudice. And I don’t mean that as a knock. Director Joe Wright, who made the 2005 Keira Knightley version of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel, and also the BAFTA-winning 2007 film of Ian McEwan’s grim Atonement, is a director with a style both flashy and sumptuous, snazzy and arty. And, in Hanna, he‘s demonstrating something we wouldn’t have expected from him: rock ‘em, sock‘, burn-down-the-house and kick-your-way-loose action movie skills.

The movie stars Saoirse Ronan (who was the jealous little girl in Wright’s Atonement) as the kick-ass title heroine, hard-fisted Hanna, Eric Bana as her action mentor dad Erik, and Cate Blanchett as Marissa, the vicious C.I.A. agent villainess — and it’s such a departure from what Wright has done before, on British series TV and in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, that it’s hard not to be impressed, at least on pure technical levels.

Wright starts out this radical departure from his previous work — and this radical feminist departure from most other action movies — with the kind of scene that would have passed for a big action set-piece in one of his earlier period literary films: a crisp, white snowy deer hunt and kill in the wilds of Finland, where the gifted 16-year-old Hanna, trained in all manner of martial arts and assassin skills in the wilderness by her extreme home-schooling dad Erik, brings down a stag and then muses philosophically.

Then, the picture keeps escalating into spectacular brawls, one-take, one-against-a-bunch subway battles, and bloody and bloodier showdowns. (Stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Jeff Imada has done great stuff with the three leads.) And the story moves her with dizzying speed to the Moroccan desert, the sex clubs (the famous Safari) of Hamburg, and the streets, subways and abandoned amusement parks (the Spree Park) of Berlin.

It’s quite a ride. The whole movie is a long three-sided chase: Hanna is captured early on by Marissa when Erik leaves her on her own, arranging to rendezvous with her later in Berlin. Then she escapes, and her captor Marissa pursues both her and Erik. The fights are all set-pieces, and they feel like set-pieces. Wright turns one action scene into a sharp-edged maze of parked trucks and sadistic stalking, and  shoots another in a virtuosic unbroken long Steadicam camera take, reminiscent of his spectacular unbroken tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach in Atonement.

The three lead actors — along with Tom Hollander as a delightfully perverse villain Isaacs, and Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng and Jessica Barden as a delightfully unlikely British family Hanna meets in the desert on the way — show the kind of acting chops you don;t usually see in movies like this, as much as the dcript by Seth Lochhead and David Farr lets them. All the characters, in fact, have more fullness, personality and surprises than the action movie norm. They’re reminiscent at times of the more psychologically detailed or richly eccentric lead and secondary characters in an old style British thriller by Powell & Pressburger or Alfred Hitchcock or Graham Greene and Carol Reed — or a classy American or international thriller by John Huston or Orson Welles, or by the expatriate Hitch.

We haven’t had many literate thrillers lately (The “Bourne” movies excepted, of course), and it’s a non-guilty pleasure to see one here, made by filmmakers who are trying to please us on a multitude of levels and not just trying to smash us out of our seats and blow us out of the back of the theatre — who want to give us explosive action, fairytale romance and grim suspense, solid character and exciting adventure, good acting and writing, exotic locales and splashy technique, and both visual beauty and visual shock. And who do.

The results are usually drop-dead gorgeous and exciting, but not necessarily completely satisfying. What we’d expect from Wright — memorable characters and high-style high drama — are here, but not emphasized as much as the story sometimes needs. The action scenes are scorchers, and they’re shot beautifully by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler (of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher) on stunning sites and sets by designer Sarah Greenwood. (Greenwood’s interrogation chamber below the Moroccan desert is an homage to Ken Adam‘s great War Room set in Dr. Strangelove.) But they’re a little too set-piecey at times.

Modern action movies often try to blast you out of your seat from first scene to last, sometimes never leaving you a moment to catch your breath.  But a great action scene in a really great action movie — from the chase across the salt flats in John Ford’s Stagecoach to the final fugal climax of Christopher Nolan‘s Inception — works on both an emotionally dramatic level and a viscerally physical one. That’s what makes Hanna a special movie, and worth seeing, but it also sets up a bill that the film doesn’t always fill.

Saoirse Ronan, like the 13-year-old Natalie Portman in Luc Besson‘s The Professional (1994), has a natural talent for bewitching the camera and for suggesting levels and levels of thought and memory and passion beneath the surface. Ronan is kind of strong and silent in Hanna, and that makes her more mysterious, and deepens the film‘s mysteries, including any nagging little questions we might have about the relationship among Hanna, Marissa and Erik, and the others. That ability to hold the screen with quietude is just as important for a first-class actor as great line readings, and Ronan seems to have it all instinctively.

So does Cate Blanchett. I wouldn’t call this one of Blanchett’s best performances, though it will probably be seen by a bigger audience than usual. But she gets the job done. Wright says what he wanted in Blanchett’s Marissa was a mixture of one of his grade school teachers, a wicked witch and George W. Bush. (I didn’t catch the Bushisms, but Blanchett does get a slight Texas accent.) Marissa is nasty and cold, and she also suggests something disturbingly human beneath the snaky, icy, mean-bitch facade. Anyway, any opportunity to see Blanchett act is a treat — even if her villainy here is complemented by Hollander, as a slimy smiling, immoralist cutthroat with lousy fashion sense.

Hanna is a movie with some serious intentions, and it’s intended at least partly as a fable of empowerment for women. Maybe it is. But I’m not so sure we should almost automatically, as part of a large, even overwhelming movie trend, shove the apostles of peace out of most of our pop myths and celebrate almost nothing but fireworks, wham-bam and rock-‘em-sock-‘em in many of our biggest movies. I’m not knocking all action movies either; I like good ones too. (Take that, you bastards!)

But the women who are more heroines to me are the ones who suffered and persevered and triumphed, in small and big ways, in fields like art and science and education and medicine and sports and politics, and even in just raising good families and being good mothers (or good friends), without tearing someone’s throat out or kicking the crap out of some bad guy. If I bumped into a real-life Hanna, of which there may be a few, I’d salute. But I wouldn‘t necessarily fall in love. Maybe.

As for Joe Wright, he seems to have approached this movie as a good student, sopping up all the movie influences that would help him, ignoring the ones that can’t. Whatever Hanna’s financial success though, I doubt that Wright should intend more of a career in action movies, eventually working himself up (or down) to Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and a recharged Arnold Schwarzenegger, or to Vin Diesel — or, closer to home and perhaps more plausibly, turning Daniel Day Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and even Anthony Hopkins into kick-butt action heroes. (Day-Lewis as Plastic Man? Hopkins as The Shadow?) Or further empowering actresses like Natalie Portman and Hilary Swank or even Meryl Streep. But Wright definitely hits the mark here.

And, since he’s shown us he can blast us all out of seats, I’d like to see himt do something ambitious and novelistic again, but more epic. Maybe something by Dickens or Thackeray or Eliot, or something more modern, on a similar artistic level, like Martin Amis or William Vollmann or more Ian McEwan. And with roles for artists like Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan. The actresses. My heroines.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon