Here’s something to ponder: The guy who directed the elegant costume dramas Pride & Prejudice and Atonement has set the standard for cinematic action in 2011. Sounds like a joke, no?

Think again. Hanna, directed by Joe Wright, jams an adrenaline needle into the fight-and-run genre’s pulse, totally shattering any preconceptions cast upon the English filmmaker from his past, more austere pictures with a punk rock sensibility. Wright pushes the boundaries of what action movies can be, applying a Euro-arthouse style of filmmaking to a story that, on paper, sounds like another Jason Bourne ripoff. Yet Hanna is the opposite of derivative; it’s a breathless, dark, and surreal head-trip, not to mention one of 2011’s most pleasant surprises and best movies thus far.

The brainchild of first-time Canadian screenwriter Seth Lochhead (who co-wrote the script with David Farr), Hanna works on every level, especially the most important one of all: narrative. Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) acts up a storm as the title character, a young girl who lives with her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), secluded within the woods of Finland, learning how to fight, hunt, and skin deer carcasses in preparation for dinner.

cate-blanchett-hannaTurns out, her dad is an ex-CIA agent who has gone rogue and remains a priority of cold-hearted intelligence operative Marissa Wiggler (a solidly antagonistic Cate Blanchett). His sole purpose in life is to groom Hanna into an unstoppable assassin. As her curiosities about normal children’s lives and civilization get the best of her, Hanna flips a mysterious red switch in her cabin that prompts Erik to flee and CIA goons to swoop in and detain the young ass-kicker. She quickly breaks out of the CIA’s underground facility, thus beginning a cat-and-mouse chase across Morocco, Spain, and Germany.

In his previous period films, Wright pulled terrific performances from his actors, even if the material was geared more toward chicks than dudes (though we’re not afraid to admit our favorable opinion on the matter); that command of his cast is just as prevalent in Hanna. With so much visual stimulation at work throughout the film, it’s the acting that elevates Hanna above mere visceral satisfaction.

Ronan, in particular, is fantastic, grounding the character’s ruthless physicality with true human emotion. Hanna is, on the surface, a blank canvas, having never been allowed to feel anything other than brute tricks and survival skills. But Ronan, one of her generation’s best talents, carries the film’s quieter character moments with the same aplomb as the action bits. And, trust, she’s quite convincing when it comes to the bravura combat scenes.

saoirse-ronan-hannaWisely, Lochhead and Farr present Hanna with a polar opposite counterpart, ultimate girly-girl Sophie (wonderful scene-stealer Jessica Barden). Sophie ogles cute boys, fires off designer name brands like a whipsmart fashionista, and defies her parents’ rules; it’s in Sophie that Hanna gets a taste of normalcy, and a touching and perfectly acted scene of female bonding inside a tent shows how Hanna isn’t as abnormal as she’s been led to believe. Amidst all of the extravagant action, Hanna is, at its core, a delicate character study.

It’s also an off-kilter film with the hypnotic qualities of David Lynch’s strangest work. Unexpectedly bleak, Hanna plays like a nightmarish spin on an old Grimm’s Fairy Tale, a thematic connection that Wright and the film’s writers make abundantly clear. Hanna has an eccentric ally named Grimm who lives in an avant-garde playhouse; the flamboyant assassin (Tom Hollander), aided by his two neo-Nazi goons, hunts Hanna and her father while saying things like, “Off to grandmother’s house we go,” and, “Run, little piggy!”; and the movie’s final showdown takes place inside a giant Big Bad Wolf’s mouth.

Dropping neo-Nazis into a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood tale is subversive enough; backing the entire shebang with a pulsating and at times eerie score from The Chemical Brothers is downright otherworldly. A major character itself, the Brothers’ dynamite soundtrack kicks Hanna into a constant overdrive that, fortunately, Wright is extremely capable of maximizing. For Hanna’s CIA-prison break, he uses the production duo’s rowdiest jam to exude playfulness in an otherwise hardcore sequence; then, later, Wright employs the score’s moodiest piece for a mesmerizing fight inside a container park. Imagine watching the infamous one-take fight from Oldboy live inside a techno club while on an uncontrolled substance—that’s Hanna’s action in a nutshell.

eric-bana-hanna Wright does something in the film’s rowdier parts that not enough physically-minded directors focus upon: He uses the camera as a manipulator. His strategic approach is most evident in the container park sequence, Hanna’s trippiest section. Weaving in and out of the train-car-sized containers, Wright puts you on the ground level, concealing what’s around the corners and keeping the viewer on his or her toes just like Hanna—when neo-Nazi No. 1 pops out with his fists a-flying, the audience’s view is as obstructed as Hanna’s. Though, we’re doubtful we could whoop as much as she does; Ronan is a pint-sized force of nature.

For going the extra mile, Wright deserves all of the acclaim that Hanna should no doubt shower upon him. The script thankfully digs deeper into the characters’ psyches than anticipated, but let’s not play ourselves here—Hanna’s make-or-break point is its wealth of extended fights, and a less ambitious filmmaker could’ve degraded the material into Jason Statham-like mediocrity. With Ronan’s powerhouse performance, The Chemical Brothers’ monstrous score, and an “anything goes” darkness, Wright has blindsided us with the “female action hero” sucker punch that Zack Snyder wishes he’d delivered.