One way to invigorate a clichéd macho premise is to substitute a girl for the customary testosterone-oozing bruiser. That works reasonably well in Hanna, an arty chase flick that reunites Atonement director Joe Wright with Saoirse Ronan, who played that film's young troublemaker. The movie has more sensibility than sense, but it seems cunning next to such silly tough-girl fare as Kick-Ass and Sucker Punch.
Introduced as she hunts a reindeer near the Arctic Circle, Hanna (Ronan) has been groomed by Erik (Eric Bana) for a particularly fierce adolescence. When the seemingly delicate 16-year-old decides the time is right, she'll activate a beacon -- the only electrical device in the rustic cabin where she's been raised -- that will draw the attention of Marissa (Cate Blanchett). Then a clash of XX-chromosomed titans will begin.
Marissa wears a near-geometric red wig, speaks in an accent that resembles a Southern drawl and works for a spy agency that suggests the CIA; "rogue asset" Erik vanished from that outfit's radar about 15 years earlier, and has stayed off the grid since. His departure had something to do with Hanna, then a baby, and her late mother, but whatever it is that links Hanna, Erik and Marissa must be an off-the-books operation, since the American spook enlists such freelancers as the affected-but-brutal Isaacs (Tom Hollander) to track her prey.
The basic scenario is a bit Run Hanna Run, complete with hammering techno score, this time by Britain's Chemical Brothers, and darned if the three main characters don't end up in Berlin. But first Hanna is transported to a black-ops interrogation center that turns out to be underneath the Moroccan desert (although it looks like it belongs in an upstate New York art park). Even more willful than the average teenager, Hanna breaks loose from the complex using such commando skills as handgun-firing, throat-slitting and neck-breaking; once free, though, she encounters a few gaps in her education: She's never heard music, seen an electric light, or had a friend her own age.
Hanna attaches herself to a vacationing family of hippies from the U.K., especially to chatty teen Sophie (Jessica Barden), and the holidaymakers transport Hanna -- not always knowingly -- toward her rendezvous with Erik at an abandoned German amusement park.
Specifically, Hanna and Erik are supposed to meet in a house dedicated to the Brothers Grimm. Fairy tales, you see, are among Hanna's motifs: Although she's somehow learned at least a half-dozen languages, Hanna grew up with no computer and only a few books, including her mother's edition of the Grimms' stories; the girl's code word for Marissa is "the witch"; and in one scene a villain emerges from a tunnel entrance designed to look like a wolf's mouth.
As if the contrast between children's fables and Hanna's military-style training weren't vivid enough, Wright sets Hanna in a Europe devoid of Old World charm. In addition to that decrepit kiddie park, the principal locations include a grimy cargo port and a Berlin that's been specially scuzzed-up for the occasion.
Lithe and wide-eyed, Ronan persuasively combines combat reflexes with the first glimmers of empathy. Blanchett is less effective as the movie's fantasy of perfect ruthlessness; Hollander's campy performance helps a little, but the evil side of this duel lacks sizzle.
It doesn't help that the secret Marissa battles to suppress, when finally revealed, proves humdrum. Although its camera moves are fluid and its art direction elegant, Hanna doesn't travel anyplace unusual. The point of all its battling is just to battle.