As can sometimes be his wont, writer-director Luc Besson’s Anna feels like a 13-year-old’s take on someone else’s work. In this case, it’s 2018’s Red Sparrow, in which a lithe, long-legged Russian beauty becomes a KGB assassin setting honeytraps and slaying henchmen. It sounds like a ding, but it’s actually an improvement. At least Anna has a point of view that could be considered reasonably human no matter how juvenile, or eventually self-defensive, it might feel. (It also doesn’t revel in revulsive sexual violence or rattle around well past the two-hour mark.)
Indeed, Anna is most enjoyable when it’s so silly as to approach self-parody. It’s mostly set in 1990, the same year Besson made La Femme Nikita, illustrative of how he largely begat the badass-woman action swagger that’s standard today and how lazily he falls back on familiarity. (The structure is a nonlinear ping-pong between 1985 and 1990, and points in between.) Its first act is filled with five-angle fender benders and malevolent mopes straight out of Besson’s early-2000s Transporter mod. Besson edits one jaunty murder montage Besson down to the 16th notes of INXS’s “Need You Tonight.” And the entire endeavor winks at itself in a hilariously macabre moment involving a severed finger.
While Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy and Luke Evans are too famous to play characters as initially straightforward as they seem, relative newcomer Sasha Luss exhibits far more depth and presence in the title role than just a proxy Milla Jovovich. (Seriously, Luss’s makeup and styling resembles an audiovisual retrospective lookbook for the actress who once was Besson’s wife and who starred in The Fifth Element and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.)
Herself a model turned actress, Luss glides her way through action sequences; the best an unbridled, improvisational restaurant battle royale that’s enjoyably choreographed even if it is a downmarket Kingsman knockoff. Unlike what you’ve seen from Charlize Theron or Gina Carano, Luss lacks a feel for establishing a center of gravity against physically beefier opponents. She finds firmer footing into the dramatic idea of how an assassin, much like modeling or even acting, requires short-term servitude for a career with a low survival rate.
And yet when Anna, in a stealthy reflection upon the film’s palindromic title, questions how the same dead end presents itself no matter what perspective she takes, it feels informed more by Luss’s real-life instinct than any authorial intent from Besson. Any eventual empowerment here seems to be confused with “little girl lost discovering sex on her own terms.” Besson prides himself so much on Anna’s matryoshka metaphor that he stabs it with a highlighter in the climactic moments, but Besson has no real idea what’s at her center. He’s ultimately too preoccupied with what Anna says about him.
That’s where the self-defensive stuff burbles to the surface after a subtextual lurk, plainly visible in light of rape and sexual-harassment allegations against Besson made last year. French authorities recently suspended a months-long investigation of the rape claim without charging him, although his accuser can, under French law, file a new complaint with independent judges.
What might initially seem like yet another base-model vehicle for Besson to cast his gaze on a very specific body type or a safely beaten retreat from the experimentalism of 2014’s Lucy or the swan-dive spectacle of 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets … well, not better as it goes along but increasingly revealing.
The twists are less risible than in, say, Atomic Blonde, for they actually mean something relative to advice given to Anna about putting faith only in herself rather than men. But it’s what those twists represent amid strong-woman superficiality that’s too bitter for Anna to be a lark and too bungled to be taken sincerely. You start to sense Besson is foolishly using Anna to somehow represent himself in the court of public opinion and serve as his own character witness. If you can’t address something this serious in a way that doesn’t align with the 13-year-olds, better to not address it at all.