Saoirse Ronan stars in "Hanna." (Alex Bailey / Focus Features )
"Hanna" starts off like a house afire but soon burns itself out. Blessed with considerable virtues, including a clever concept, crackling filmmaking and a charismatic star, it ultimately squanders all of them, undone by an unfortunate lack of subtlety and restraint.
Subtlety and restraint may sound like odd things to look for in an adrenalized thriller about a teenage girl who's been trained as a world-class assassin. But when you consider the "Bourne" trilogy, the class acts of contemporary thrillers, those films were smart enough never to be crude and heavy-handed with their characters, a trap the caricature-heavy "Hanna" does not even attempt to avoid.
Though much has been made in pre-release publicity of director Joe Wright moving from literary adaptations like "Pride & Prejudice" and "The Soloist" to an original script about kill-crazy secret agents, in fact this film shares with those two the identical weakness for overplaying situations and embracing the easy and the obvious.
What "Hanna" shares with Wright's most successful film, his adaptation of Ian McEwan's "Atonement," is the exceptionally gifted young actress Saoirse Ronan. Oscar nominated for that film as a 13-year-old and only 16 when "Hanna" was filmed, Ronan has the ability to make us believe the unbelievable, and she needs that talent to make this project come alive as much as it does.
"Hanna" begins with a series of beautifully shot and composed sequences set in a remote and snowy vastness 60 miles below the Arctic Circle. Spectacularly photographed by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, these play out like a survivalist manual crossed with the fairy tale fantasies of the Brothers Grimm.
First glimpsed taking bow and arrow aim at an unsuspecting reindeer, Hanna lives in a remote Little Red Riding Hood type cottage with only her father Erik (a well-used Eric Bana), an old encyclopedia and a book of fairy tales for company.
Like any teenager, Hanna wants to get out and see the world. Unlike any teenager, Hanna has an ex-CIA agent single parent who's been so relentlessly training her to survive any and all attacks that his idea of a good time is sneaking up and trying to literally pound her into submission. "You must always be ready," Erik insists over and over in an insistent Teutonic accent. "You must think on your feet. Even while you're sleeping." Thanks Dad, I needed that.
It turns out, however, that father really does know best. No sooner does Hanna get her wish and announces her presence to the world than an American military team snatches her and places her in a seemingly impregnable underground compound.
Given that Hanna is a flesh and blood superwoman, smarter, faster and fitter than anyone within camera range, not to mention being deadlier and more ruthless, it's not exactly a surprise that she finds a way to make the best of that situation.
Up to this pivotal point, about 40 minutes in, "Hanna" has been everything it wants to be as Wright's energetic direction delivers popular escapist cinema done with dash and style. But after Hanna makes it out into the world at large, the film becomes more bothersome than entertaining.
The problem is not with the two stars who have carried the film so far: Ronan believably expands her role into a wild child who is experiencing everything in the world, from electricity to boys, for the first time and Bana remains convincingly relentless in safeguarding his daughter's interests.
Rather the difficulty is that in a way intended to be fantastical or surreal but plays as inept and irritating, every new character introduced by the Seth Lochhead and David Farr script comes off as an overwrought cliché. This is as true for the good people, like the family of tourists headed by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng that Hannah connects with, as it is for evildoers like Tom Hollander's twisted killer.
Most victimized by this tendency is the usually impeccable Cate Blanchett. She's been encouraged to play CIA bigwig Marissa, the incarnation of evil Hanna has been warned against, as an object of ridicule obsessed with cleaning her teeth. The results are not pretty.
As "Hanna" spirals downward dramatically it continues to provide genuinely impressive action sequences. Shallow where it doesn't need to be, frustrating when it should be formidable, "Hanna" wastes a great opportunity by overplaying its hand. The assassin may or may not survive, the film does not.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material and language
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release