It’s been awhile since director Luc Besson has given us a solid work, but ‘Anna,’ his latest film, seems like a return to form to his more celebrated work. It’s not as outrageous as ‘The Fifth Element’ nor is it as moving as ‘Leon: The Professional,’ but it does have shades of the latter working to its favour. In fact, it could even be a spiritual successor to the debut film of Natalie Portman; though the story seems much closer to an earlier film of his, ‘La Femme Nikita.’
Like ‘Le Femme Nikita,’ ‘Anna’ is about a woman, down on her luck, as she is recruited and trained into becoming a spy. The titular Anna (played by the beguiling Sasha Luss) is a Russian assassin who finds herself as an invaluable piece of a battle between the KGB who recruited her and the CIA, who are hot on her tail, in the early 90s right before the end of The Cold War.
But the narrative structure of ‘Anna’ is broken apart into segments that jump back and forth in time. The film is confusing at first, beginning with the death of CIA agents in Moscow in 1985, and then jumping forward five years when Anna is selling matryoshka dolls in a Russian plaza and she’s spotted by a modeling scout. We see Anna become a high fashion model for quite a bit before we return into the spy game that is at the core of the movie.
The cut up narrative structure and the jumping back and forth through those five years can be jarring at the beginning, but it underscores how nothing in the reality of ‘Anna’ is what it seems. What is clear all throughout the film is that Anna has a different plan for her life than being caught in the deadly games of the KGB and the CIA. As the film explores the various ways that Anna can be deadly, it takes its time to humanize her as the stakes are raised higher and higher until its eventual climax.
As any Luc Besson film, there is an emphasis on the duality of Sasha Luss as Anna: that of the gorgeous model and the deadly assassin. Her beauty is a weapon but more so her sharp mind and wit. Her beauty is a given, and her physical prowess is more than evident, but the film also makes a heavy emphasis on her tactical skills, ability to improvise, and her ability to withstand the high stress levels required of her work. So much so that she’s also managed to catch the eye and maybe even the hearts of the KGB recruiter (played by Luke Evans) and the CIA officer that she comes across (Cillian Murphy).
And as an interesting counterpoint to Anna is Olga, played by Helen Mirren (who is obviously having a lot of fun with this role), who is the officer in charge of the assassin’s missions. We see the possibility of Anna’s future if she can’t find a way out of this situation she’s found herself in.
As spy films go, the film does a competent job at laying out Anna’s world without making it about the spy world. ‘Anna’ isn’t bogged down by the implications of Anna’s assassinations, working more as a character study of a young woman who has discovered she’s bitten more than she can chew. The film revels in her kills with some hard-hitting action sequences and even a clever little montage of her hits that sort of tells us how capable she is.
But the film is actually a really simple story of a woman being played by two men who want her for what she can do for them, while all she wants is her own freedom. The non-linear narrative structure serves to disarm us, letting us know that we cannot trust anything in this film and that nothing is what is seems.
‘Anna’ has an old-school appeal to it. It’s a rather simple movie that takes dramatic liberties often enough to make it recognizably fiction so we don’t problematize the body count or the geopolitics involved. There are visual presentations of women as sex objects, but I don’t know if that is countered by the fact that only the women in the movie are complex. They have wants and needs outside of what the men want, whereas all the men just want her.
‘Anna’ is a fun movie with solid action and is a great debut for Sasha Luss. It won’t have the same impact as ‘John Wick’ but it’s not a waste of time.