‘Anna’: a Formulaic Sexy Spy Thriller from Luc Besson
She’s dressed to kill, so kill she does. Assassin-turned-model and model assassin Anna Poliatova (Sasha Luss) is the Russian protagonist in Anna, a glib film about an anguished soul who’s also impossibly beautiful and improbably brilliant. Her biggest challenge: freeing herself from the shackles of a male-dominated spy-vs-spy world, even if it means ripping some thigh-high nylons along the way.
Quoting Chekhov with baffling ease, the polyamorous polylinguist with a dead-shot trigger finger seems like a too-perfect projection of kick-ass femininity, a Mary Sue for the former Soviet Bloc. Except she’s complicated, okay? That accidental death of her hyper-accomplished apparatchik parents left Anna a tormented teen cadet who dropped out of military school at 17.
After spinning her wheels in drugged-out oblivion, the Russian government gifts Anna an out-of-the-blue special-ops opportunity. She’d rather slit her wrists, which she does, and then reconsiders on the promise that it’s only a five-year stint. Sure it is.
The film sets most of the action in the late ’80s and early ’90s, supposedly to give this ersatz political thriller a veneer of historical intrigue. Brace yourself: there is no historical intrigue. Helen Mirren also appears as Olga, Anna’s world-weary boss who limps because of an old bear-trap injury. And, yes, she freed herself from the bear trap with a screwdriver, by the way, because she’s Helen Fucking Mirren. “I’m KBG, baby,” she purrs at Anna. More, please.
The plot twists only make sense when cards like “Five Years Later” and “Three Years Earlier” pop up to better serve the film’s temporal scrambles. It’s that kind of movie, serving up aha! moments by rewinding the action and showing it from different vantage points. Men pull all the strings, even Olga’s, and it makes Anna feel like a slave. Her double-dealing endgame is full criminal immunity and a peaceful Hawaiian retirement. Why Hawaii? Her parents had a postcard of Hawaii on their refrigerator. Told you she was tormented.
Anna is a perfectly enjoyable XX-chromosome shoot-’em-up with a couple of dazzlingly choreographed set pieces. But the mindless antics suffer from Euro-pretention whenever someone pontificates. “Let the currents move beneath you,” says one agent with Zen intensity. “Trouble never sends a warning,” wisely mutters another. Dostoyevsky would approve. Besides: they’re KBG, baby.
Cinéma Du Look Away
Like muscle memory or a nervous tick, writer/director/producer Luc Besson can’t help but make action movies. Once upon a time, specifically the late ’80s and early ’90s, Besson loomed large in France as the reigning auteur of flashy, violent crime dramas like Subway (1985), La Femme Nikita (1990), and the Professional (1994). Even his outlier, gonzo scuba romance The Big Blue (1988), was feverish and overwrought. Audiences lapped it up, and critics dubbed him part of a style-over-substance movement called Cinéma du look. He was hip.
ANNA ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson
Starring:Sasha Luss, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Helen Mirren
Running time: 118 min
Then the overreach set in. First he made the bananas sci-fi epic The Fifth Element. Then a Joan of Arc biopic. And finally, after co-founding the production company EuropaCorp, he oversaw dozens of movies, including writing and producing cash-cow franchises like the Taxi series, the Transporter series, and the Taken series. He also directed a string of wobbly pictures, most recently the 2017 space flop Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
His last hit as a director was 2014’s Lucy, a tight, nasty thrill ride that turned Scarlett Johansson from a kidnapped drug mule into an indestructable superhuman. Anna is nowhere near the baroque pulp of Lucy, falling back on the junkie-turned-hitman structure of La Femme Nikita, right down to the grande dame guide (swapping Mirren for Jeanne Moreau). It even feels like a recycling of the far more inspired 2017 Charlize Theron secret-agent vehicle Atomic Blonde, right down to the crumbling Soviet setting. As fun as it is, Anna just feels half-hearted, as though the 60-year-old Besson is treading water by cobbling together elements of a safe formula.
Maybe Besson is at an inflection point, especially now that he’s restructuring the troubled EuropaCorp; the French government just handed it a six-month debt waiver. Feels like it’s time for Besson to downsize his ambitions and recalibrate his inspirations. Don’t forget, Luc: let the currents move beneath you. Trouble never sends a warning. Except at the box office.