Who or what is Anna? Answers include a reminder of director Luc Besson’s action movie credentials, an attempt to start a female-fronted assassin franchise and a showcase for the acting talents of model Sasha Luss. Or at least that’s what could be said of the film, sight unseen. Because in actuality, the delayed, and rather dumped thriller (distributor Lionsgate refused to screen the film for press) is an unqualified failure on all three counts, a wide-releasing multiplex dweller that instead works best as an undemanding late-night TV watch, exactly where it should have been offloaded in the first place.
After Besson scored a surprise global hit with the rather barmy Scarlett Johansson actioner Lucy, he used his increased sway to get the even barmier Valerian made, an audacious and expensive misfire that at the very least showcased his untamed creative spark. But Besson’s gonzo excesses didn’t attract a wide enough audience and everything about his follow-up feels like a director settling back into a safe groove. Anna is not quite pedestrian but it never really feels like the work of someone with anything to say or prove. It’s competent and even complacent at times, a million miles from Bola Deposit Pulsa would expect from the director of The Fifth Element.
In a plot that feels patchworked together from better films, Anna (Luss) is a woman in need of a chance. In 80s Moscow, there aren’t that many available to her and while trying to strike out on her own, the patriarchal society she’s trapped in forces her into a life of submission. But one day she gets given an opportunity to work for the KGB and after being reluctantly taken under the wing of sour, ruthless handler Olga (Helen Mirren) she finds herself to be a surprisingly ruthless assassin while moonlighting as a model because of course. But after years of servitude, Anna starts to worry that a life spent taking other lives might not be what she really wants.
Revisiting his 1990 calling card La Femme Nikita, Besson has managed something quite astonishing in that he has somehow made Anna even worse than that film’s much-loathed Hollywood remake, 1993’s Point of No Return. In the almost 30 years since his original hit, we have seen a string of films focused on female assassins (although still not nearly as many as those starring men) yet Anna seems to exist in a world where these films don’t exist. For so much of the film, Besson rests on the “shock” appeal of showing a beautiful blonde woman being able to kill just as ruthlessly and as violently as any man, as if we’re new to the concept and as if that’s enough to add sheen to a tired, familiar plot.
Besson sees Anna as a star vehicle for Russian model Luss, who he used as an alien in Valerian, and as rote as the script might be, one can still imagine what the right choice of actor might have brought to the material. The similarly themed Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow were both deeply flawed, but Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence elevated them effortlessly, both bringing old-fashioned star presence to projects that didn’t deserve them. Luss appears in virtually every scene of Anna, and in not a single one of them does she prove worthy of such a task. She’s a black hole at the centre of the film, her performance so sedate and lifeless that it sucks all the energy right out of a thriller that should be jacked up with adrenaline. As her duelling love interests, Cillian Murphy (Irish but playing American) and Luke Evans (Welsh but playing Russian but sounding Scottish) struggle to rise above the dross they signed up to which leaves it up to Mirren to have some campy fun as a heartless anti-matriarch figure, spouting lines like “Trouble never sends a warning!” and having more fun than anyone else in the film or the audience.
There’s ample room for commentary on the journey a woman trying to rise up in a man’s world, especially given the setting, but bar a few throwaway lines, this is business as usual. Luss is still a fetishised object, especially as she engages in a rather pointless romantic relationship with a fellow female model, and at times the film plays like a softcore porno just with the sex scenes cut short. It’s not empowering by itself to show a woman with a gun, especially when she’s wearing such little clothing, and the film does at times play uneasily given the accusations of sexual misconduct levelled at Besson, something that led to its many delays (the director denies “reprehensible behavior of any kind”).
What ultimately sinks the film is its overwhelming blandness, from the lack of creativity employed in Anna’s many kills to Besson’s inability to choreograph a pulse-racing action scene, and the script’s belaboured attempts to jump back and forward in time to wrongfoot us only highlight how little it brings to the table. Gimmickry can’t mask vapidity, and in finally answering who or what Anna is, the answer would be that you really never need to find out.