When we meet Anna (played by newcomer Sasha Luss), she is a Russian street peddler who is discovered by a talent agent. A few whirlwind days later, Anna is picked up by an agency, on the set of a busy photo shoot and living in a packed apartment with other models on the rise. The film takes its time to inform us that Anna’s “killer looks” have a literal quality, as her distracting physical beauty masks her training as a hired assassin. If Flashdance gave us “a welder by day and a dancer by night,” here’s “she’s a model by day and killer-for-hire at night.” Whoever said Hollywood is out of fresh ideas?
For a while, Anna is trashy fun. There’s a montage, set to “I Need you Tonight” by INXS, which cuts back and forth from Anna’s modeling session to her assassin sprees. This zippy concoction, written and directed by Luc Besson (once referred to as “The Spielberg of France”) lacks the propulsive excitement of his best films, though it’s as idiosyncratic and unapologetically sleazy as you’d expected from him.
Besson clearly knows what he’s doing, piling on the glossy, sensationalist imagery and commenting on how, in either world, Anna is using her looks to sell an image and compromising her soul with every camera shutter/gun shot.
What seems to be heading into guilty pleasure territory finally becomes tiresome, with a third act that piles on so many last minute twists, multiple double crosses, and even more flashbacks within flashbacks, I was eager to go home. The action sequences are over-sold in the trailer: there’s an impressive, shockingly violent set piece in a restaurant that, as startling as it is, the trailer gave most of it way.
Luss isn’t bad in the title role, with her own modeling background serving her well. Aside from a supporting part in Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, this is her first starring role; while her acting abilities aren’t developed enough to carry the movie completely, this isn’t an embarrassment, either. However, it should be noted that Besson’s former muse (and ex-wife) Milla Jovovich would have been terrific playing the part. In supporting turns, Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy, and Luke Evans are all good, though no one gives this a needed center (a problem Valerian also shared).
The timeline bounces around often, with scenes beginning with “Three Years Later,” “Three Months Earlier,” “Five Years Later,” etc. It happens so often, with the momentum of the story halted yet again to show another extended flashback, I ceased to care about the plot and just took every scene for the cheap thrills they offer. While initially set in the 1980s and moving into the early ’90s, this isn’t much of a period piece. Although there’s much to enjoy in the novelty of a photo shoot set to Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” little else here evokes the time and place. If anything, the only thing ’80s about Anna is the dated and hurtful way it portrays Anna’s lesbian lover and dishes out ample uses of the synonym for a female dog like it’s hip and new. Showgirls is a far more progressive movie.
Political incorrectness is the only real novelty here, as Anna suffers from an overly familiar story and presentation. Yes, Besson is cribbing from his greatest hits, as the journey of the title character is awfully similar (in narrative and intensity) to his still-fantastic La Femme Nikita. In terms of presenting a female protagonist who suffers greatly, uses her sexuality as a weapon, and aims to find freedom and equality in a world ruled by oppressive men, there are shades of Besson’s Lucy, The Fifth Element, Columbiana (which he co-wrote and produced) and even his The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. More tellingly, while Anna is far better than the similar, joyless Jennifer Laurence vehicle Red Sparrow, it never comes close to the excitement, visual richness, and innovation of the ’80s/Russia-set Charlize Theron-starrer Atomic Blonde from last year. Besson fans like myself will forgive it to a point but there’s nothing worse than a brain dead B-movie that thinks its clever.
Rated R/119 min.
Image courtesy IMDB