FILM REVIEW – ANNA. With Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexual content. 119 minutes.
Betcha didn’t know that a Luc Besson movie opened this past weekend. ANNA, the writer-director’s sleek new espionage thriller starring Russian supermodel Sasha Luss was quietly slipped into 2,220 theaters by distributor Lionsgate without any of the usual advance screenings or publicity outreach, presumably due to allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against the director by nine women in a French publication last fall. One assumes this stealth release is a matter of the studio fulfilling contractual obligations without opening itself up to the kind of legal difficulties that have ensnared Amazon’s film division following their recent shelving of Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York.” Or it could just be a matter of not wanting to throw good money after bad, as the movie is merely mediocre.
Even before the accusations, Besson was already back on his heels. His EuropaCorp production company filed for bankruptcy protection after the catastrophic box office failure of Besson’s enormously expensive (and to this critic quite dazzling) “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” So it’s no surprise that “Anna” feels very much like a deliberate re-entrenchment for the filmmaker, eschewing his gonzo science-fiction flourishes and getting back to the kind of sexy, ultra-violent Eurotrash thrillers that made Besson an international sensation thirty years ago. Call it “La Femme Anna,” or “Nikita, Redux.”
“Anna” begins in 1990, halcyon days for the director and two years before his latest leading lady was born. Luss plays an international fashion model moonlighting as an assassin for the KGB. Her jet-setting career provides excellent cover and access for a globe-trotting contract killer, along with ample opportunity for Besson to indulge his lifelong penchant for photographing beautiful women in their underwear. (Those recent reports regarding the director’s behavior cast an icky shadow over the film’s cheerfully prurient proceedings.)
The byzantine story finds Anna struggling to free herself from the clutches of hunky KGB handler (Luke Evans) and a slick CIA agent (Cillian Murphy) who are happily taking advantage of her both in the field and in the bedroom. Besson gooses up his plodding plot with a startling, time-jumping structure. Left-field, shockaroo twists pop up out of nowhere and then the movie skips back a few weeks, months or sometimes years to fill us in on the events leading up to whatever the hell just happened. It’s a kick the first two or three times he pulls it off, but by the last couple reveals I wanted him to learn a new trick.
But “Anna” is quite deliberately not a movie about new tricks, rather a wallow through the director’s familiar fetishes. This means lots of long tracking shots in which our long-limbed ingenue struts through opulent hotel hallways packing pistols, plus some spectacular action set-pieces filmed with the high gloss of fashion photography. A mid-film montage featuring at least a dozen of Anna’s assassinations set to INXS’s “Need You Tonight” is everything you came to the movie for in a marvelous miniature. (I can’t wait for it to wind up on YouTube.)
In her first substantial role, Sasha Luss acquits herself quite admirably and proves a fine successor to Besson’s model-actress leading ladies like Anne Parillaud, Milla Jovovich, and Cara Delevingne. It’s not her fault that the film feels flabby and occasionally exhausted. Over the past couple of years “Atomic Blonde” and especially the spectacularly sleazy “Red Sparrow” have mined familiar territory with a good deal more wit and invention. Cillian Murphy’s loutish CIA agent pales in comparison to a similar Langley scumbag played with way more hambone brio by Guy Pearce in Brian De Palma’s recent “Domino.”
It’s almost hilarious how little interest Besson has in period detail, with these Cold War characters fighting over laptops and USB drives, anachronistically chatting on clamshell cell phones while modern cars drive through the background. But even the director’s indifference can’t put a damper on the great Helen Mirren, who seethes and steals scenes left and right as a put-upon KGB second-in-command. Barely recognizable beneath a frumpy wig and black-rimmed Coke-bottle classes, she mutters about “zees,” “zat” and generally does a delightful impression of what might happen if Fran Lebowitz ever guest starred on “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.”•••
Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.