"Hanna" is the bad-ass girl-power movie "Sucker Punch" wanted to be — or at least should have wanted to be — and the thriller that Angelina Jolie's "Salt" only was at times.
Director Joe Wright keeps this story of revenge and survival moving in stylish, pulsating fashion. And of course he has one long, breathtaking tracking shot, which has become a signature for the director of such films as 2007's "Atonement."
But at its core, this is actually a coming-of-age drama, and the fact that it features such great performances from such a strong cast makes you care whether these people live or die.
Saoirse Ronan, who was nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar for her portrayal of a sneaky little girl with a secret in "Atonement," reteams with Wright in a role that could not be more different, or more challenging. She stars as the title character, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 16-year-old killing machine.
Hanna lives with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), in a rustic cabin in a remote and unforgiving forest just below the Arctic Circle. Blanketed in snow and bathed in bleak, wintry sunlight, the place has the magical and frightening feel of something you'd see in a fairy tale — and the screenplay from Seth Lochhead and David Farr goes back to notion of Hanna as fairy-tale heroine again and again.
Erik teaches Hanna to hunt, fight and speak in various languages. Their hand-to-hand combat scenes are quick, intense, visceral — until one day she tells him, "I'm ready." But who she is and what he's training her for are a tantalizing mystery.
Turns out her father is a former CIA man, and the two have been living in isolation for most of her life. Once he leaves her with plans to reunite with her in Berlin, she must embark on the journey that is her destiny. Hanna is captured by government agents who think she's a shy and sheltered little girl.
But, uh ... they're wrong. And this sequence, in which she annihilates everyone in her path, is one of many that are punctuated perfectly by an electronic score from The Chemical Brothers. Wright trusts his actors and the choreography, and lets these fight scenes play out without a lot of unnecessary edits.
Hanna's purpose is to track down veteran intelligence operative Marissa Wiegler, played by Cate Blanchett in a coldly devious way that's almost over the top, but always fun to watch.
Blanchett is all honeyed menace as a ruthless Texan who can turn on the charm when she has to; she's also inordinately adept at running in Prada heels. She's looking for Hanna herself — and has a vested interest in keeping her alive.
But before they can meet up, Hanna must travel through Morocco and Spain and finally to Germany. That she does this alone, and with no money, is a fact you will have to suspend disbelief to accept.
Along the way she gets some help from a British family on holiday. Olivia Williams is lovely, and a rare source of warmth, as the New-Agey mother, while Jessica Barden steals all her scenes here, as she did in "Tamara Drewe," as the sassy teenager who becomes Hanna's first real friend.
Hanna responds with a mixture of fascination and fear to the normal elements of our daily life — electricity, television, phones — and watching her open up is as satisfying as watching her take down armed men.
Ronan's face can be placid or it can flash with emotion, and because she's so centered and confident, it helps make some of the more implausible parts of "Hanna" more acceptable.
The fact that Ronan is this good at this young age is what's truly frightening here.
"Hanna," a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material, and language. Running time: 114 minutes. Three stars out of four.