Never Make the Weapon the Target
After the financial and critical disaster of his wildly ambitious (and frankly not that bad) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), Gallic ‘cinema du look’ exponent Luc Besson retreats to familiar territory with Anna, a sleek, sexed-up action thriller that sees the titular Russian bombshell (Sasha Luss, who had a small role in Valerian and little else to her acting CV) pressganged into life as an assassin for the state. Sound familiar?
Of course, it does — Besson nailed the template for this sort of thing back in 1990 with his landmark thriller La Femme Nikita, which gave us Anne Parillaud as a drug-addled French waif repurposed as a svelte killing machine by the French secret service. Something about the concept struck a nerve, culturally speaking, with Besson’s icy blue Euro-thriller inspiring an American remake (1993’s Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda and Gabriel Byrne), a Hong Kong remake (1991’s Black Cat, starring Jade Leung) and two TV series (La Femme Nikita, 1997-2001, with Peta Wilson, and Nikita, 2010-2013, with Maggie Q). Recently the Koreans got into the act with the delirious The Villainess (2017), and although Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde character is largely shorn of backstory, her persona in the movie owes far more to Besson’s iconic ice woman than to the dowdier spy heroine of the source comic, 2012’s The Coldest City.
So, there’s a thing going on here, and the purpose of Anna is not to break new ground but to reiterate an archetype which, if it wasn’t invented by Besson, was arguably perfected by him. The problem is that, although it has some merits, Anna always feels like a lesser iteration; even though its action choreography and lensing is more or less in keeping with the current genre status quo (which probably has a lot to do with Besson’s EuropaCorp films, like the Taken (2008-14) and Transporter (2002-15) franchises, heavily informing that status quo), it never hits the heights of its acclaimed predecessor.
Which doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable in its own way. Anna sets its scene in territory mutually occupied by the clandestine world of espionage and the world of high fashion, because why not? It does, at least, afford Besson his penchant for decorating his frame with lithe European models (which is distasteful given the allegations against the director, but we’ll circle back around to that before long).
Our heroine is a fashion model by day, assassin by night, whacking targets for the USSR in picturesque Paris (the film is set just prior to the end of the Cold War), generally while wearing something skimpy and fetishy. Flashbacks fill out her backstory: recruited from the streets by KGB face Aleksander Tchenkov (Luke Evans) and placed under the control of her landler, Olga (Helen Mirren), she’s promised freedom after five years of wetwork, but KGB higher-up Vassiliev (Eric Godon) reneges. This makes her a prime candidate for double agent duty when CIA agent Miller (Cillian Murphy of Batman Begins (2005) and Peaky Blinders (2013) and, yes, the supporting cast is several notches above the usual for this sort of thing) decides she’ll be a perfect catspaw in his long-running feud with Vassiliev. And so, we proceed from there.
It’s pretty by the numbers stuff, albeit seasoned with more sex than usual, perhaps taking a few cues from the Jennifer Lawrence 2018 espionage vehicle, Red Sparrow. Anna seduces her targets, carries on an affair with Aleksandr, and enters into a relationship with fellow model Maude (Lera Abova) all to little effect except to show us more square inches of the striking Luss. This isn’t particularly surprising or shocking; as a key member of the style-over-substance ‘cinéma du look’ movement, Besson has never needed much of an excuse to let his camera linger on beautiful people. It does feel unnecessary, but then it’s all unnecessary; here, as in so much of Besson’s filmography, the image, the aesthetic, is the primary concern. Everything else is secondary.
Well, perhaps it is to Besson — for a clued-in audience, there is subtext that must be reckoned with, and connotations impossible to ignore. There’s something interesting to be milked from contrasting the predatory, dangerous world of espionage and the predatory, dangerous world of high fashion, where lecherous middle-aged men leer and paw at ambitious, gamine young women. However, in light of the scandal around Besson, it comes across as tone-deaf at best, and arguably as ham-fisted counterprogramming, with Besson drawing a circle around the middle-aged miscreants in his film and saying ‘See! I’m not like those guys! I think they’re awful, too!’ There’s a particular scene where Anna thrashes a slimy fashion photographer clearly based on Terry Richardson that would be bold and provocative — if it had come from any other filmmaker. Instead, it is profoundly uncomfortable.
Indeed, it colors the entire film. We get some cracking gunfights, some striking composition and cinematography courtesy of regular Besson collaborator Thierry Arbogast, a solid cast who treat the material with exactly the right pitch of po-faced bombast, and a pretty great turn from Luss, who gets at least some nuance and interiority happening in a role that basically requires her to look good while killing people — and yet the pall remains.
There’s simply not enough time here to dig deep into the art vs. artist argument, and you no doubt have your own views on the subject and are probably not going to be swayed by a couple of extra paragraphs on the tail end of a review. So, let’s be plain: Anna is a stylish, solid, erotically-charged action thriller that ticks all the right boxes and makes all the right moves more or less, hitting its entertainment KPIs but never really stretching itself. However, its subject matter and tone, when considered alongside the numerous sexual assault allegations against its writer and director, means it takes an active effort of will to divorce the on-screen content from the shadow that hangs over its creator – and maybe a competent, mid-range actioner isn’t really worth that much psychic energy.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Anna is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video