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Gilbey on Film: laugh till you drop

Joe Wright's <em>Hanna</em> draws on a rich vein of assassin comedies.

There is so much to relish Joe Wright's film Hanna, which is part comic thriller, part fairy tale and part irresistible "What If?" (as in: "What if Rainer Werner Fassbinder had designed a big-budget Hollywood action movie?").

The movie is named after its teenage heroine (Saoirse Ronan), who has been raised as a single-minded killer by her father (Eric Bana) in a remote snowy wilderness. With her tentative relationship to the modern world, and her ruthlessness and near-immortality, she's like the Terminator crossed with Nell.

Dad is a former special agent who went rogue after the killing of Hanna's mother; father and daughter have spent the intervening years preparing for their only mission -- to kill the special agent (Cate Blanchett) responsible for the murder. The picture begins with real snow and real swans, but by the end we have seen a kitsch alpine nightclub routine in a Berlin bar, and the characters are stalking one another through an artificial landscape where giant plastic swan boats bob on the water and a cottage is adorned with fake snow.

The effect is to seal the film and its violence inside a fairy-tale world. (Presumably this is what has allowed a 12A-certificate to be attached to a movie in which people are shot in the head or stabbed in the neck with with pens.)

Blanchett is a treat as the wicked queen of the story. In the flashbacks, she looks like she could have walked straight out of Fassbinder's 1979 terrorist thriller The Third Generation. In the present-day scenes, she wears a lipstick-slashed smile to rival Jack Nicholson's in Batman. She bends her body at sharp angles as she ascends a set of steel steps, like a beautiful robot designed with the sole purpose of negotiating staircases in an elegant fashion.

Ronan, who had a pivotal role in Wright's film of Ian McEwan's Atonement, brings lightness to a part that could have come across as an automaton. The Chemical Brothers' urgent, aggressive score pushes the action forwards, and even dovetails nicely with some of the more industrial production design: there's a long sequence set in a version of CIA headquarters which, with its vast cylindrical concrete tunnels and ducts, could pass for a hot new club on Berlin's gay scene.

Perhaps Tom Hollander, channeling the spirit of gay hit-men Mr Wint and Mr Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever, would be a regular there, along with his neo-Nazi sidekicks/concubines. (That's another great thing about Hanna: where else could you expect to find itsy-bitsy Hollander trading blows with the strapping Eric Bana, the sensitive action hero from The Hulk and Munich?)

For all its glorious oddball elements, Hanna fits into a recognisable cinematic tradition. It's no surprise that cinema has been obsessed with the mythical figure of the solitary assassin as far back as Alan Ladd in the 1942 noir thriller This Gun For Hire; the combination of the romance of the loner, and the inbuilt guarantee of violence, is irresistible. What's unusual is how readily the subject lends itself to comedy. It's not always intentional -- you need only look at last year's preposterous and pretentious thriller The American to see how easily an assassin's story can be undermined by its own solemnity.

But there is strong potential for a delicate comedy of manners in the tension between the monastic demeanour of the assassin, and the possibility that it may be impinged upon by the messy business of life and love. Prizzi's Honour (1985) exploited it beautifully, framing the blossoming romance of two killers (Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) as a kind of slowed-down screwball; the pace is deliciously, extravagantly unhurried but the script would have tickled Preston Sturges.

Wild Target (the 1993 Pierre Salvadori original, rather than the recent British remake) took similar material into the realms of black farce. Also notable are Jim Jarmusch's excursions into the deadpan assassin comedy -- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009), by which time the joke had worn thin, at least in that director's hands.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) took a more broadly humorous approach. Here, the assassin's reticence is used as a means of confronting the prevailing concern of post-Fever Pitch New Man comedy: commitment issues. If the comic violence in that picture owed something to Tarantino, Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (2007) felt authentically scabrous and salty in both word and deed.

The best assassin comedy, as well as one of my favourite films of the 1990s, has to be The Long Kiss Goodnight (1997) starring Geena Davis as a mild-mannered housewife whose forgotten past as a professional killer returns not so much to haunt her as to fire automatic weapons and hurl grenades at her. There's great relish in the way the director Renny Harlin depicts Davis's shift from Doris Day to Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb . And the picture functions neatly as a tangy satire on family life. Its suggestions that the core of the family unit might be fractured -- yes, your mother could be trying to conceal her bloodlust with cookies and PTA meetings -- are not a million miles away from The Stepfather or Serial Mom.

It's a bristling comedy, an absurdly exciting thriller and a more compelling housewives' wish-fulfilment fantasy than Shirley Valentine or Calendar Girls.

Hanna opens on Friday. Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic