My first impulse after ‘Anna’ was to dismiss it as entirely trash. Then I calmed down, slept on it for a day and decided most of it was merely bland leaving the screenplay as the sole disastrous component. Even though I had set my bar right in the core of the earth’s crust, somehow this aggressive troll job of a film found a way to be clotheslined into my 2019 pit of shame; where ‘Glass’ longed for some company.
'Anna' is sadly directed by Luc Besson, whose last inroad into ambitious Hollywood fare, 'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets', was met with limited glee from film fans and their pockets. So seeing him retreat into more Euro-pulp action territory was a welcome step – until some 15 minutes in, when I realised I may be witnessing the nadir of Luc Besson’s filmmaking career, complete with the amplification of his worst tendencies.
This anachronistic mess of a film starts in (well not actually) 1990’s Moscow where Anna (Sasha Luss) is plucked by a French modeling agency from a market where she sells Matryoshka nesting dolls. She is flown to Paris where she is thrust right into the thick of the modeling industry. When does the spy-y stuff begin, I kept asking myself?
Anna was clearly an agent in deep cover, and she appeared damn good at her job. But the film tiptoed around her identity so gingerly making you wonder fit it was also trying fool audiences; like a toddler terrible at hide and seek. I stared hard for the wink that would signal the respect Besson had for audiences, but it never came. Instead the plot progresses to where she gets cozy with a fellow Russian who is partner in the modeling agency by day and an arms dealer by night. Finally, Besson jumps out of his terrible hiding place when he has Anna put a bullet in the arms dealer’s head.
Time for character stuff, Besson must have thought to himself at this point so we jump back in time three years to where Anna’ bread and butter appeared to be musty sex and weed; both at the behest of her abusive boyfriend. After sending in an application to join the Navy, a KGB agent named Alex (Luke Evans) visits her and offers her job in a special unit under the no-nonsense Olga (Helen Mirren). Anna is notably promised she will be free to go after five years of service.
As the film makes a ludicrous number of jumps backward and forward in time, it becomes clear the promise of retirement after five years was mere lip service. Apparently, Olga’s girls really don’t live up to the time frame so the KGB has never been faced with breaking or fulfilling that promise. Therein lies the central tension of the film, where Anna longs for some form of agency and freedom from the oppressive KGB. Unfortunately, it is made clear to her that will be over her own dead body.
Back in 1990, where Anna is building her cover as a model, a few variables are thrown into the equation; notably a CIA agent, Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). He gets wind of her after the murder of the arms dealer and we wait for the predictable plot point that opens the door for Anna to maybe turn her back on the KGB and gain her freedom.
No matter the garnishes, ‘Anna’ is still as perfunctory as they come, lacking any wit or verve; the kind seen in some of Besson's best and most ambitious work. Our director probably opts for the nonlinear structure to hide how listless the narrative is. The formula for the time jumps basically involves a major “reveal” (heaviest of air quotes) being followed by a trip back in time to explain what just unfolded to excruciating effect.
By ignoring the possible depth a film set in the exploitative modeling industry could have offered, It feels like Besson just wanted skimpily clad girls on set for most of the shoot to satisfy the male gaze. He even throws in an inconsequential lesbian romance for good measure.
The year 1990 is notably the year Besson’s iconic action thriller ‘Nikita’ was released and the only plausible reason for ‘Anna’ to exist is as some form of sick joke ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary. Glancing at Besson’s filmography, there are films that may have been difficult to defend but none that were difficult to embrace or just plain misfires like 'Anna'.
Sometimes it was the visual idiosyncrasies, like in ‘Valerian’, or the humor a film like ‘The Family’ offered that made it a worthwhile experience, despite seeming warts. But there really isn’t any positive hold on to here. The only idiosyncrasies here are the bizarre depictions of technology, which are at least 15 years ahead of its time.
I guess the action sequences were passable considering I was being mesmerized by John Wick about a month ago. Our first bout of real action, in which Anna’s first official gig in the KGB sees her dispatch of over a dozen attackers with guns, plates, cutlery and other lethal improvisations impresses in parts. There’s this other hilarious montage of a series of hits that serves to highlight just how much killing has become her way of life. She racks up quite the headshot count and it’s in moments like these that 'Anna' develops a faint pulse. But just when you think of taking it off life support, it jumps back in time to do some labored explaining.
Our quite impressive cast of actors are swimming against the tide here with little or no spark in the performances. Sasha Luss will cut a magnetic screen presence in better hands but is mishandled by Besson here; Luke Evans and Cillian Murphy would be right at home in a ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ remake and Hellen Mirren looks like she’s having fun as the ruthless handler who turns out to have a heart of gold. But ultimately, the performance we see mirror the effort Besson put into his script.
Besson is the subject of some controversy now ( he has been accused of inappropriate behavior by at least nine women) and if ‘Anna’ had done well, there may well have been torches and pitchforks coming his way to violently burst his bubble. There was probably no winning for him or indeed anyone, save those who went and saw ‘Aladdin’ instead, or just sat at home and banged their heads on a table for the two-hour running time.