Between Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, a new Hollywood trend is dawning: Young girls are totally the new action stars. It's a smart move. Over the last couple of decades, Hollywood has streamlined and refined masculine action stars to the point that they barely look human anymore. We expect them to do insane physical stunts from the moment they walk on-screen, whereas a girl in her early teens performing ridiculous combat moves and committing calculated murder in a split second still manages to confound our expectation. By remaking the action hero into a figure we normally associate with vulnerability, the whole genre feels fresh again. And whereas Moretz was doing a hilarious Clint Eastwood impersonation that was ginned up for the sake of parody, Ronan's Hanna is a logical evolution from Matt Damon's Jason Bourne; she's as serious, and deadly, as a heart attack.
Hanna was raised in the arctic circle by her exiled superspy father (Eric Bana) to be a killing machine, a weapon in his war against an American intelligence agent (Cate Blanchett in an unfortunate, wobbly Southern accent). As the wily Hanna travels around Morocco and Europe, she murders enough anonymous government agents to fill a school bus, even though she's never seen electric lights before. Ronan outacts every adult in the film; her Hanna is brutal and sly and innocent and lonely and brave and scared, all at the same time.
Luckily, Ronan's performance is matched by vigorous and inventive direction. Nowhere on Joe Wright's directorial résumé—The Soloist, Atonement—was there a clue that he could be this gifted at directing an action film. He understands we've seen the painstakingly choreographed fights a billion times before, so he gives us expressionistic action that makes the audience complicit in Hanna's battles; while we do get to see her in action, we're often asked to intuit the sequence of events from clues that Wright provides us. He cleans off all the familiar tools (the tracking shot, the shaky cam) and reenergizes an entire genre.
Hanna gets bogged down in fairy-tale imagery (if you've seen the trailer, you already saw the shot that features Blanchett walking out of the mouth of a tunnel shaped like the Big Bad Wolf; it's no less subtle when placed in context) when a little restraint would have been ideal. But that's a forgivable sin. Even the moments of heavy-handed symbolism feel spirited in the company of the exciting Chemical Brothers soundtrack. Nothing in Hanna is lazy or dumb; when compared to the last 10 years' worth of action films, it feels like a goddamn revolution.