So what are you supposed to do if you're a reasonably smart director in an environment that has room for little but superheroes and effects spectaculars? One solution is to make arted-up action pictures that can exercise your skills and technique while also supplying the audience with chases, martial arts and gunplay, and that seems to be part of the strategy here. Luckily, it pretty much works!
Now, one of the images on this page is not from this movie. But which one?
The movie begins in total silence, with our heroine Hanna, played by Saoirse Ronan, one of the best things about one of the director's previous films, Atonement, hunting a reindeer out in the Finnish wilderness. She's been raised by her dad, Erik, played by Eric Bana, to be an always-on-guard killing machine and encyclopedia of general knowledge [wouldn't it be funny to have a movie in which a young girl is rigorously trained her entire life with the goal of appearing on game shows?]. She seems to have little time for the typical teen girl things like ponies and sexting, what with all that training to be an unstoppable killing machine, and is encouraged to remain on guard and work out mental problems even as she sleeps. When she finally thinks she's "ready" she is encouraged to flip a switch that'll bring the government down on her ass, whereupon both dad and daughter must flee and play a little game of kill-or-be-killed with shadowy government operatives until it's all over and Hanna can finally relax and get in some quality mall time.
Oh by the way, there's an important bit in here about how while Hanna could easily destroy all Trivial Pursuit challengers, she has never heard music. Then you'll notice that the film doesn't have any music until Hanna is captured, when the much-vaunted [highly-publicized and quite ostentatious] electronic score by the Chemical Brothers kicks in. Let's keep this whole music angle in mind.
So anyway dad pops into the drink and swims from Finland to Germany [What? You've never done that?] while Hanna gets caught and taken to ye olde top-secret underground facility. There she is watched over by a steely-eyed Cate Blanchett as Marissa Weigler. In here we start to appreciate having a decent director bringing a smidge of welcome artiness to the proceedings, with nice compositions of Marissa sandwiched between reflected images of Hanna. Things proceed as expected, with Hanna turning vicious and making a daring escape, causing the secret facilitiy's lighting system to go red alert, which could easily be mistaken for "Disco Mode." I'm not sure pulsating rows of alternating lights is really best for cornering fugitives, but it sure looks cool. Hanna pops her head outside--and she's in the middle of the desert! It's an expected moment--something you could say about the entire movie--but it's handled well and it works. She wanders around for a bit and after a few minutes we finally figure out that she's in Morocco. There she eventually meets a traveling family led by Olivia Williams and becomes friends with their hilariously worldly teen daughter, Sophie. She'll stow away with them and eventually end up in Germany.
But first a few other important scenes. In one she is put up in a Moroccan hotel, where she hears some music for the first time, but is also freaked out by the sounds of electricity and boiling kettles and remote controls, and it becomes clear that while she has a number of awesome survival skills, those came at the expense of basic human enjoyment [such as music], and friendship, as we see in a scene of extra-close close-ups in which she and Sophie, Willaims' daughter, pledge their friendship to each other. We also see her have her first attention from a boy [which is a bit unnerving as it's hard to tell exactly how old Hanna is]. All of these scenes go far to establish an emotional undercurrent to the story that gives it more substance than it would otherwise have, and establish Hanna's vulnerability, which makes her one of the more human and relatable killing machines in movie history.
So the chases and escapes continue, although with enough clever artsy touches to keep one engaged. For example, when Erik emerges from a German bus station, posters ostensibly for eyeglasses fill the walls with images of eyes, emphasizing the surveillance he's under. The movie continues the theme of Hanna's discovery of music [and, by extension, the pleasures of life] with an extended flamenco performance. The Chemical Brothers' score is quite in your face, but the combination of sound effects and loud industrial rhythms also carry the theme of Hanna's discovery of the bleeding between noises and music.
There's also a running subtext of the film being a fairy tale. There are several references to Grimm's fairy tales, meetings take place in a German amusement park filled with fairy tale imagery, Weigler is explicitly presented as the Big Bad Wolf [especially at the end], and even makes a visit to Grandma's house to take care of her before Hanna can get there. It doesn't add anything but richness, but that richness goes far to bring the otherwise stripped-down story depth it didn't need, but gains greatly from.
The movie supplied just enough information for us to get the bare bones of who Hanna, Erik and Weigler are and why all of this is happening. I appreciated not having to wade through further unnecessary details, and this keeps the emphasis on the chase. Blanchett speaks in a southern accent for Weigler, which one can understand but is a bit jarring every time she opens her mouth. The movie ends with a chase through an abandoned German amusement park that supplies a lot of evocative images, then closes out with a bang.
When it was over, my friend and I had the pleasant experience of realizing it was MUCH better than either of us had anticipated. It's still just a chase film, but done with enough real smarts to keep the thinking person interested and engaged. My friend, as usual, had the quote of the evening, gushing about how unexpectedly good everything was, ending "And a chase through an abandoned German amusement park, I mean--they've been inside my dreams!"
It's still just an action thriller, but it's a darn good one.