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Whether it's La Femme Nikita or Lucy, to name but a few, writer/director/producer Luc Besson has found his biggest commercial successes with action movies centered around their leading ladies kicking ass and taking names in elaborate, spectacular fashion. So, it makes a good deal of sense that when the French filmmaker's long-winded passion project -- the extravagantly goofy, bubbly bizarre space opera, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets -- didn't make a killing (to say the least...) that he would want to return to his most dependable, proven filmmaking formula to garner some much-needed financial success. Admittedly, Anna, the latest action-thriller from Luc Besson, does ring true to Besson's tired-and-true method.
A pulpy, twisty spy thriller period piece, Anna is a boilerplate throwback action flick by design. Centered around the mysterious, dexterous and highly lethal title character, Anna (Sasha Luss, in her first leading role) is a cunning, ruthless young woman who splits her time between two totally different, yet equally cutthroat, high-demand jobs: professional modeling and top-tier assassin work for the Russian government. She lives a hard life, despite the extravagance that comes with each occupation, and it only gets harder when CIA agent Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy) follows her every move. To give away more would risk the possibility of revealing any number of the movie's time-hopping twists, which practically make you dizzy after awhile.
What should be evident here, however, is that the plot to Anna sounds awfully familiar to a movie that came out just a year earlier: Red Sparrow. Even down to the inclusion of a couple of British actors — in this case, Helen Mirren and Luke Evans — providing, we'll say, questionable Russian accents. It's not a direct cut-and-paste copy, and Luc Besson's movie was in production months before Red Sparrow came to theaters, but the comparisons are unavoidable. What should've been a fun, stylish return-to-form for the famous filmmaker gets clouded in a jumbled plot that's both too convoluted and formulaic for its own good, and a promising woman-led action-adventure now gets overshadowed by unfortunate circumstances outside the cinema.
Not to step on the tail of the elephant in the room, but if you haven't heard about Anna or seen any marketing for the movie, there might be a reason why. While this new movie was being made, Luc Beeson was hit with sexual assault allegations that have put the filmmaker's movie-making future in jeopardy. There is an argument to be made that one should separate the art from the artist, but I often find that if the art invokes the controversy, then it's basically impossible to split the two apart. Unfortunately, while Anna doesn't directly tie into any of the allegations made against Besson (allegations that were dismissed in a Parisian court due to a lack of evidence), it's also hard to get invested in this story of empowerment and vengeance with this thought looming in your mind.
There's no doubt that Luc Besson's skills as an action director can be seen throughout the film. Anna's use of long takes and sharp sound effects, mixed with confident cinematography and memorable set pieces, do showcase an experienced director working in a genre that has been successful for him in the past. But these action beats can often be few-and-far between, and the crux of the story is given the real-life context that makes it hard for viewers like me to separate fiction from reality. For some folks, this might be easy. But even if that's the case, Anna's intentionally jumbled, overly intricate, complex story does impact its success beyond its real-life circumstances. This script feels haphazard in how it jumps around; while there are a few instances of it working out in the film's favor, there are even more instances where this structure results in a needlessly frustrating experience.
That said, Anna's best component is undoubtedly its lead actress, newcomer Sasha Luss. She displays a cool confidence mixed with a tender vulnerability that makes the character both commanding and humane. It's clear this movie was meant to be her big break, and it's a shame that the controversies surrounding the director will likely prevent that from happening in the near future. You can believe that kicking ass and making people meet their maker is second nature to her, while the actress' early history as a professional model does inform some enjoyable bits of satire about the modeling industry. In fact, as weird as it might be to say, I kinda wanted to see more of the world of modeling in this movie about deathly assassins.
Anna's wildly over-the-top, yet equally revealing and keenly-realized, perspective in this often-lavished profession gives Anna an unexpected rejuvenation in key moments that's keeps things fresh and lively, even among a splattering of high-octave deaths. In fact, one of the film's high points is a montage near the middle of the film that splices footage between modeling shoots and Anna shooting her opponents. Is it subtle? Absolutely not. Is it fun? During this particular sequence, very much so. It makes you wonder what Anna could've been if this premise were given to another director.
It's often evident that Anna is Luc Besson hoping to harken back to the sensational success of one of his earliest, most career-cementing movies: the aforementioned La Femme Nikita. Hell, Anna even takes place in 1990, the same year Nikita was released. It's a smart business play, and if it weren't for the controversies, maybe this attempt by Luc Besson to return to his former glory might've been successful — at least, financially. Alas, it is clear that while Besson is more experienced as a filmmaker and still able to craft some well-executed action sequences to sprinkle throughout a film, this genre return feels more like a retread than a complete rejuvenation. It has a couple sharp sparkles, but it doesn't quite strike the same high fire.
As someone who got a kick out of Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, it was often apparent that Luc Beeson was retracing his steps from 1997's The Fifth Element. Similarly, Anna is clearly Luc Beeson trying to return to that premiere '90s glory. But the world is changing, and it does not look like Beeson is expanding himself in any particular way as a filmmaker these days. There are a couple other elements that stand out here — most notably, Helen Mirren providing a fun, splashy supporting turn that fits the general vibe of this action romp well. It's not quite a dud. It's simply a lackluster effort from a veteran filmmaker whom we'll likely hear less and less from in the next few years — despite the early promise of his lead star.