By Thom Ernst
With Anna, director Luc Besson once again indulges his fantasy for plucking broken young women from a life of neglect and obscurity and transforming them into elite assassins. And though Besson does salvage a reasonably entertaining tale, his unapologetic fetish for women who kill gives the movie an icky feeling of having stumbled across someone’s private web browser.
Like many of Besson’s long line of woman warriors, Anna (Sasha Luss) is orphaned, soulless, and fast slipping into a dead-end spiral. Along comes KGB agent Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) who delivers her from a world of manipulative low-level petty criminals and into a world of manipulative high-level career psychopaths.
Alex recruits Anna into the KGB, promising her freedom after five years of service — and we know that’s going to turn out well because when was the last time you saw a film where a KGB agent wasn’t as good as their word? In no time, Anna is transformed from a passive survivor into an unstoppable killer-elite who battles bodyguards, henchmen, as well as C.I.A. and KGB agents, although how this is achieved in such short order is not something Besson chooses to share with the audience.
She does, in the course of the film, manage to fight bodyguards, trained assassins, and undercover agents from both agencies with little problem. It does make you wonder why the agency doesn’t train all their agents to be equally efficient.
The film also stars Helen Mirren, fluctuating between a Russian Fran Lebowitz and a poorly aged Daphne from the Scooby-Doo series as she frumps it up as a KGB official who begrudgingly takes Anna under her wing. Cillian Murphy contributes the most to the film as a C.I.A. operative who, like all men in the movie, falls prey to Anna’s charm. Murphy tosses off his lines like playful asides, giving the film some much-needed intentional comedy.
We’ve seen this film from Besson before. But Besson isn’t so much remaking his movies as he is renovating them. He uses the same framework in Anna as he did in La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, Lucy, and even The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Anna just has a few new wall-hangings and a fresh paint job.
Anna is structured within an excessive series of time lapses as if Besson was subjecting us to a grade nine math quiz. It’s simple math, so no one is likely to get lost, although the quick calculations can be distracting, but only when they become frequent enough to deem laughable.
I can’t speak directly to Besson’s idea of feminism, but I can assume if Anna is it, then feminism in the mind of Besson boils down to gun-toting fetishism as blatant as if he were to strut his leads out in spiked-heels and fishnets stockings (which he doesn’t stray too far from). Crediting Besson for creating strong female requires actively overlooking plot points where men step in to salvage women from their dead-end existence.
But despite similarities to past films, Anna is not without its surprises. It is, after all, an espionage thriller, so there are shifting alliances and a few red herrings to keep things interesting. And Besson, for all his failings, can direct a superb action sequence. Anna has one of the most spectacular prop-infused battle sequences put to the camera; one well-worth a frame-by-frame review and study.
Anna is no more exploitative than most films of its ilk, but when tagged with Besson's full canon of lethal ladies, then Anna becomes less of a guilty pleasure and more of a shameful one.
Anna. Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Sasha Luss, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, and Helen Mirren. Opens wide June 21.