IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Anna, a young Russian woman in an abusive relationship, seems to have hit rock bottom in her life when she’s picked up by the police along with her boyfriend and two others during an attempt to rob a cash point. She sees no point in continuing her life, but then accepts an offer by KGB officer Alex: after a year of training she’s to work as a KGB assassin for five years, after which she will be free to continue her life as she pleases. KGB head Vassiliev is not willing to honour this agreement, implying that the only way out of the KGB is death. But Anna nonetheless heads for work in Paris and goes undercover as a fashion model….
I remember when I was a huge fan of the man behind the likes of The Big Blue, The Fifth Element and his masterpiece Leon [longer version of course], a film that probably makes my “50 favourite films of all time” list. However, those days are now long gone, and for some time now you just don’t know if Luc Besson is going to turn out something good, bad or average. Lucy was certifiably nuts, but also hugely entertaining. The latter couldn’t be said though with Valerian And The City of A Thousand Planets which sadly turned out to be a bust in nearly every way. One therefore perhaps can’t blame him to returning to his first big success. 1990’s La Femme Nikita gave us the terrific Anne Parillaud as a convicted felon who, instead of going to jail, is given a new identity and trained as a top secret spy/assassin. Besson has virtually remade the earlier movie with Anna, with the similarities ranging from familiar story beats to certain moments reprised with just a few minor differences. It also looks as if he borrowed a bit from last year’s very fine espionage thriller Red Sparrow, even if he probably hadn’t seen it at the time: that movie was also shot in 2017 and before his own film hit the cameras. To try to help disguise the familiarity of what we’re seeing, he’s opted to tell his story in a fragmented time structure in which a shocking revelation is made three times, followed by the story rewinding to spend a chunk of time explaining the backstory behind the new development, before returning to where we were before so we view things in a different light. This device is probably a source of annoyance to many viewers, but without it the tale would be very predictable indeed, with very few surprises at all, so I was eventually pleased that Besson had done this and allowed me to be occasionally startled.
The most widely circulated trailer focused on a striking action sequence with Anna battling loads of goons in a bar, displaying considerable martial arts skill in the process. This gave the impression that Anna was first and foremost an action fest, or at the very least contain a fair amount of ass-kicking mayhem like Atomic Blonde. However, this was pretty deceiving. Whoever put that trailer together should be sacked. The bar scene is one of only two major action scenes in the film, something that has probably disappointed lots of people expecting to see another fight fest. However, if you put that to one side, the film will certainly not bore, with Anna frequently carrying out her assignments and the pace remaining quite fast despite the time-shifting. However, despite the contributions of such regular Besson collaborators as cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, editor Julien Rey and composer Eric Serra, it tends to feel like a Besson imitation by somebody who hadn’t done much study, rather than the genuine article, because it’s mostly lacking in the usual Besson quirks like the bits of wacky humour and unusual characterisations, not to mention the charismatic performances from the actresses who have been the central figures of most of his stories over the years. Sasha Luss doesn’t have much of a screen presence, and while she does act reasonably well in places, her efforts are hampered by the fact that her character barely has a character. She’s not always very sympathetic either, which is undoubtedly kind of interesting, though it would have worked more if she’d just been written better.
We open in 1985 with various people in Moscow being carted away by the police and one guy in a car crushed by a train. You’ll wonder what on earth this has to do with anything else for some time, though it is eventually explained. Flash forward to 1990 – and before I get on with the story I’m going to have to briefly digress and mention a truly absurd thing about this film. We’re in 1990 right?- but there are numerous instances where the digital technology on display shouldn’t exist, with people using things like WiFi and USB sticks – in a story set in 1990! We’re not given any indication that we’re supposed to be in an alternate universe 1990, so this is just really lazy. Did they really think that this wouldn’t be noticeable? Surely they could have just set the story nearer the present day? It hampers involvement in the narrative. Anyway, we meet Anna selling Russian dolls in a market. She’s spotted by a scout for a French modeling agency and sent off to Paris to work, though this is obviously the kind of environment where you can walk in to people having sex in your bed. She makes friends with fellow model Maud who makes an obvious pass at her. She also catches the eye of a fellow countryman, a wealthy businessman who is one of the investors in the firm. Cut to two months later and they’ve been an item for those two months, though she won’t go to bed with him. In an effort to get into her pants, she confesses to her that he uses the money that he makes illegally selling weapons to the enemies of the world. Finally, his luck seems to be in – but then she calmly walks out of the bathroom and coolly puts a bullet in his head.
And then – the film does the first of its three journeys back in time, to show Anna living on the fringes of society with an abusive criminal boyfriend and a desperate need to escape her horrible circumstances. She’s in such a bad way that she slits her wrist when being interviewed by Alex, a KGB agent who thinks that she’ll be useful, though it’s hard to see why going by what he would have seen and noticed. He offers her a chance to join the organisation and work with him and his boss, the imperious Olga, with the promise that she will be free to go after five years of service, though her boss scorns at this last notion. Back in 1990, Anna is maintaining her cover as an up-and-coming model while carrying out loads of assassinations. She even has a relationship with Maud, though I could have done with a scene or two showing their transition from friends to lovers. In fact the whole ‘romantic’ [if it can be called that] element of this movie is handled very coldly. The way Anna ruthlessly uses both her main Russian colleague and her main American colleague for joyless-seeming sex may have been intended to make her seem cool, but it’s a shame that, while we see don’t see any explicit sex, we do see Anna engaged in carnal activity with both of the two guys but don’t get a single scene of her and Maud being affectionate together, and we’re left with the impression that Anna could be using Maud too. The best interactions in the film are between Anna and Olga, played by a clearly fun-having Helen Mirren. Olga seems incredibly harsh and uncaring, and her scenes with Anna bristle with tension, but there are hints of humanity here and there, and there’s a wonderful moment where Olga seems rather hurt when Anna doesn’t trust her in a scene right at the end.
As I’ve already hinted at, the Americans soon come calling too, though Anna just wants out, something that seems impossible. Plot turns get increasingly implausible and Besson finally lets the slightly farcical nature of the proceedings take over with a deliberately funny [I hope] mass stand-off. Watching this film really rammed home how well Red Sparrow handled similar material, though Anna is still perfectly watchable and I’d probably be praising it a little more if it wasn’t from Besson. There’s plenty of cool footage from the bar brawl that the trailer didn’t show, and Anna’s rather too easy escape from the KGB headquarters allows Luss to show off some more good moves. She does convince when playing the cold assassin going from target to target, and it’s hard not to cheer when Anna loses her rag with an irritating fashion photographer possibly inspired by Terry Richardson. It would have been interesting if we’d been shown how the world of modeling is as cutthroat as the world of espionage which is full of cutthroat killers, but Besson is content to merely hint at this and not really do anything with the idea. It’s as if he felt obliged to do all this rehashing, but did it reluctantly and without total engagement, though it’s almost charming for a modern film to make excuses for having foreign characters speaking English and cast members trying their hands at French and Russian accents [which they do mostly pull off well]. At least the music score is well up to Eric Serra’s usual quality. There’s the usual industrial electronica, but also much diversity in instrumentation and it’s nice to see that, even in this day and age, Serra is still interested in writing actual themes. There’s an incredible, ethereal, vocally-led track which will be the first thing I play when the soundtrack CD arrives on my doorstep.
Anna was actually completed December 2017, and its intended first release was cancelled due to Besson being accused of mass sexual misconduct, which is sort of ironic seeing as he loves his female heroes. I’m not going to comment further on that, except that it won’t stop me from watching and loving some of his earlier films. In these superhero-dominated days, I find myself more prone to championing something like Anna, if I think it’s worth it, more than I would have done many years ago. However, there’s no doubt that, while certainly not being the sort of film you’d call “bad”, it’s a let down that’s just rather lacking, despite having all the ingredients for a cracking ride right there, derivative or not.