Though Shamelessly Derivative, Anna Still Manages To Squeeze Out A Bit Of Fun
Harkening back to his classic 1990 spy thriller Nikita, Luc Besson treads familiar territory with Anna, casting real-life model Sasha Luss in his latest femme fatale thriller. As a mysterious beauty seemingly plucked from obscurity to become one of Europe’s most in-demand fashion models, Anna’s new glamorous life is all just a cover for her true profession as a highly-trained Russian assassin (. . . stop me if you’ve heard this one before . . . ), proving herself to be a remarkably effective killer who ultimately struggles with her clandestine profession and dreams of one day being free of the figurative shackles placed upon here ( . . . seriously, stop me!).
At its core, Anna is the cinematic embodiment of desperation, trying its best to capitalize on the success of films like Atomic Blonde, while also trying to recapture some of the magic that Besson became known for in the 90s with the aforementioned Nikita, lightly dusted with a bit of The Professional for good measure. The film has little desire to be original, as it lifts scenes from Nikita wholesale, despite trying to put a unique spin on them. Instead of being a dope fiend in Paris who’s arrested during a pharmacy robbery, Anna is a dope fiend in Cold War-era Russia who escapes the police in a high speed chase through Moscow, after she’s roped into being an accessory to an ATM robbery. Instead of her first assignment beginning with her eliminating her target in a fancy restaurant before evading said target’s bodyguards, Anna has to have a full-on brawl with her target’s bodyguards before finally eliminating him. Instead of having a handler that admires her from afar, choosing to never act on his feelings, Anna and her handler Alex are carrying on a full-blown sexual relationship under their superiors’ noses.
Anna takes a stab at being clever in its use of flashbacks, in part presenting the idea of Anna and her journey throughout the film being representative of Russian nesting dolls, with every flashback revealing more of the character and her motivations, how she is manipulated by her superiors, and how she might ultimately gain the upper hand. Admittedly, it’s an interesting concept, as it provides some context for Anna as a character, revealing her to be quite intelligent and resourceful, even before being recruited to be an assassin who poses as a supermodel. Unfortunately it starts to feel entirely too repetitive and robs the film of any cohesive narrative structure.
Complicating matters even further is the fact that Anna is supposed to take place between 1987 and 1991, yet features an absurd amount of technology that wouldn’t even be created, much less available, for at least another decade. This doesn’t just happen once or twice, it happens in virtually every other scene in the film. Pre-assassin Anna is actually seen filling out an online application for the Russian Naval Academy on a wireless laptop. Upon arriving at a photography studio/boarding house for models in Paris, we see a whole row of first-generation iMac computers, which wouldn’t be released to the public until 1998. Every major character has a mobile flip phone for God’s sake! How much cocaine was the entire production team on that there was no one to step in and say to Luc Besson, “Guy, none of this stuff existed in the timeframe in which this movie takes place!”
In spite of all this, I am legitimately surprised that I was able to walk out of Anna with some level of enjoyment. That action scenes are effective for the most part, with some degree of variety, and never lasting longer than they need to. The aforementioned restaurant fight is one of the film’s best moments to shine, as Sasha Luss handles a fair amount of the fight choreography and gunplay with ease, making for some fun and bloody kills. There’s an understanding of urgency and brutality that is conveyed, and while certainly derivative, it still succeeds in eliciting an appropriately visceral response from the audience that is entirely earned. Other set pieces are decidedly flashier, but never feel so cartoonish that they fail to make a comparable connection. A montage of Anna dispatching multiple targets over time, set to the music of INXS, also proves to be a nice inclusion.
As an actress, Sasha Luss still needs a few more credits to hone her skills, but she holds her own opposite costars Cillian Murphy, Luke Evans, and Helen Mirren. All of them turn in decent performances, especially Cillian Murphy, who has cornered the market on playing American characters meant to represent some of the worst qualities of Americans in general while never being so reprehensible that you would want to write him off completely. His CIA character oozes arrogance and condescension with an underlying layer of insecurity that’s fascinating to watch. As Anna’s handler/lover, Luke Evans infuses his character with equal measures of stoicism and intensity, and has some genuinely good chemistry with Luss throughout the film. One could argue that Helen Mirren is slumming it in the film as Anna’s direct superior Olga, but I would counter that Helen Mirren can do whatever she damn well pleases, and has plenty of material to work with as a seasoned veteran of the KGB who doesn’t have time for Anna’s weepy lamentations.
It’s hard to tell if the catalyst for Anna was spurred on by the underperformance of Luc Besson’s wildly ambitious science fiction comic book adaptation Valerian, or by the resurgence of real-life Russian espionage in the news in recent years, or both. Though riddled with cliches and displaying a flagrant and egregious disregard for its established time period, I ultimately couldn’t bring myself to hate or even dislike Anna. Its inherent silliness is balanced out with a strong cast and some solid action scenes, and moves along quicker than its two-hour runtime would suggest. Surely there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, with lowered expectations in mind.
[3 out 5]