There’s an undeniable hint of uncertainty that accompanies the debut of a new Luc Besson film. Will it be a return to form for Besson; a new take on La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional or even The Fifth Element? Or will it be the Besson of late – the Lucy Besson – where the film is fun, but also frivolous and forgettable?
Sadly, Anna, his latest, is not even a Lucy. Besson’s new film finds him firmly back in Nikita territory with its tale of a girl taken in from the cold by the KGB who longs for freedom, but the nearly two hour film sinks under the weight of its familiar narrative, its bland leading lady and, in a shockingly ill-advised creative decision, a script that relies on no less than four or five narrative-clarifying flashback time jumps that serve to explain how the characters managed to pull off their double and triple crosses.
Anna begins strongly: in the early 80s, a handful of American agents in Russia are rounded up and executed to serve as a message to the CIA. It’s a tense, exciting sequence that introduces Cillian Murphy’s Agent Lenny Miller as the aggrieved head of the American agency.
Cut ahead five years as a modelling scout wanders a crowded market, stumbling upon a blonde beauty, Anna (Sasha Luss) selling Russian nesting dolls. He appraises her face, her height, and her hair before quickly offering her a contract on the spot. Shortly thereafter she is flown to Paris and put to work on high end fashion shoots. It’s not long before Anna catches the eye of an obviously disreputable man; over the next few weeks, she seduces him and then one day, she shoots him dead in his penthouse. Surprise! The entire post-title card sequence thus far has been an elaborate cover story that Anna’s KGB handlers, Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans, not even bothering with an accent) and Olga (Helen Mirren, doing serviceable work in a thankless role) have cooked up.
The first exposition time jump vaults the narrative back three years to offer a deplorable, albeit predictable sad and abusive, backstory for Anna. It is revealed how she was recruited by Alex, how she was handed off to Olga for covert assassination missions and how the life of an international assassin begins to wear on her.
In the film’s single best sequence – and the one spoiled almost entirely in the trailers – Anna given five minutes to assassinate a man in a restaurant, only to learn that she’s been given an empty gun. It’s a plot point lifted straight out of La Femme Nikita (which is, arguably, why it works) and Besson directs the ensuing chaos with verve and confidence. The endless parade of goons that Anna dispatches nearly verges on comedy; her shoulder length hair and black leather are so coated in red as she dispatches men with knives, guns and bar rails that she might as well have bathed in blood.
Later action sequences, including a montage of her handiwork as an assassin and a hasty escape from a secure area under lockdown, never reach the same heights, which is unfortunate considering that the film’s single greatest selling feature is its action.
The acting is uniformly fine… with the exception of Anna herself who, by virtue of the role, is required to present as a blank canvas onto which her various roles can be projected. The issue is that while Luss looks the part of both a model and an assassin, her ability to emote is less convincing. In moments when Anna’s cover is blown or she’s been betrayed, Luss resorts to lowering her head and slowly closing her eyes. It’s not great, and considering that Anna is front and center for roughly 98% of the film, it’s a major issue.
The single greatest problem with the film, however, is Besson’s script. Anna is hitting the same spy beats that have been covered by other films a million times before, but those texts were better. Anna also adopts one of the most misguided structural devices in recent memory: story clarifying time jumps into the past.
Were this to occur a single time, say to help clarify a sudden turn of events, it would be considered standard, possibly even expected, for the genre. Twice would be pushing it.
By the time that Anna employs its fourth (or possibly even fifth – who can keep track?) time jump, the only audience response left is either laughter and/or groans. This is particularly true of the final time Besson plays this particular card, which occurs ten minutes before the film ends!
Alas, this odd structural decision is poorly done and, more often than not, serves to shine a light on the script’s weaknesses in a very obvious way. Anna could have been a guilty pleasure action like Lucy, or a variation of Besson’s earlier works like La Femme Nikita or Leon: The Professional. Instead it plays like a subpar, “lite” version of his better films that pales in comparison. Were the plot better constructed, or if Luss were a stronger actress, perhaps these shortcomings could be forgiven. As it stands, Anna simply isn’t worth rescuing.