Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Sasha Luss, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Helen Mirren
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes and Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Official Website: www.facebook.com/AnnaMovie
Opening Day: 20 June 2019
Synopsis: Beneath Anna Poliatova’s striking beauty lies a secret that will unleash her indelible strength and skill to become one of the world’s most feared government assassins. An electrifying thrill ride unfolding with propulsive energy, startling twists and breathtaking action, ANNA introduces Sasha Luss in the title role with a star-studded cast including Academy Award Winner Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy, and Luke Evans.
From ‘La Femme Nikita’, to ‘The Professional’, to ‘The Fifth Element’ and to ‘Lucy’, Luc Besson has been lauded for crafting strong female characters in his movies, so it is no surprise that after 2017’s expensive space opera ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ flopped, Besson would once again retreat to his comfort zone to re-establish himself as a dominant filmmaker. Oh yes, ‘Anna’ will come across awfully familiar to Besson completists: not only does it again feature in the leading role a relatively unknown actress (this time, in up-and-rising Russian model Sasha Luss), it also is one of those shoot-em-up espionage tales which were the mould of his early career-defining hits.
Yet, familiarity aside, ‘Anna’ is unlikely to jumpstart his flailing box-office track record in recent years. On the surface, it boasts many of the elements which made his similar movies in the past successful, including an enigmatic lead whose loyalties/ motivations are indeterminate, a top-notch list of supporting actors/ actresses (including Cillian Murphy, Luke Evans and Helen Mirren), and a twisty plot of double-crosses and even triple-crosses meant to keep you guessing till the very end; alas, this time round, these narrative traits come across less authentic than gimmicky, seemingly employed in order to mask what is otherwise a simple and straightforward story that you would probably have lost interest in.
In fact, it doesn’t take too long for you to get frustrated with it for its herky-jerky timeline, which begins with Anna as a street urchin selling wares at a Moscow market, who is talent-spotted by a scout for a modelling agency in Paris. Quickly gaining in favour, Anna is introduced by the agency’s co-owner at an event to one of its investors, a Russian businessman named Oleg (Andrew Howard). After a whirlwind romance of two months, Anna finds herself alone in a hotel suite in Paris with Oleg, whereupon she promptly shoots him dead after emerging from the bathroom. Cue the first of many flash-backs, where we learn that Anna had in fact been recruited by the KGB two years ago, and was in fact placed on assignment at the market to catch the scout’s attention.
Her recruitment episode involves a no-good boyfriend whose botched attempt to rob an American businessman would end up in the both of them on the run from the police, and an unexpected offer by KGB handler Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) to honour the life she has been given and make a fresh start. At the end of that episode, we are brought back to the point where she had murdered Oleg, and is facing interrogation by CIA agent Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy) in a station room. There, the narrative rewinds six months earlier to show how Anna had proved herself to the strict KGB overseer Olga (Helen Mirren) by overcoming a whole restaurant full of armed bodyguards and assassinating her target, and with that initiation, was entrusted with the mission to kill Oleg, albeit with help with fellow KGB agents.
If that sounded like a dizzying chain of events to go back and forth between, you should know that writer-director Besson is hardly done; oh no, in fact, his unnecessarily twisty storytelling will see her being played like a pawn by the CIA and KGB alternately, before she proves to be smarter than the agencies she had seemingly been at the mercy of. While his intention may have been to keep up the suspense by surprising you at many turns, Besson’s tactic of pulling the rug from under your feet quickly becomes tiresome and frustrating, given how you’d probably think him disingenuous to tell you only part of what is really going on before springing an ‘a-ha!’ moment at you.
It doesn’t help that Anna’s motivations are less defined than they need to be, in order that we be both empathetic and empowered by her as Besson intends. Indeed, it isn’t hard to guess that Besson wants us to feel for Anna at the start as she is manipulated by powers beyond her control, and therefore to cheer for her as she takes decisive charge of her circumstances in order to reclaim her will to live by her own choices. Yet, Besson seems more taken by the need to outsmart his audience than to construct a fully formed individual whose spirit and tenacity we can relate to; unfortunately, as stunning as she looks, Luss still has some way to go as an actress, and fails to bring much heft to an otherwise vapid central character.
What pleasures ‘Anna’ offers are therefore skin-deep at best, including a couple of well-staged action sequences that offer Luss the opportunity to showcase the fruits of her physical training in jujitsu grappling and Muay Thai kickboxing – in particular, the aforementioned scene where she discovers her own wits and will to take out about 20 or so bodyguards in a restaurant is both intense and thrilling, though unfortunately unmatched by anything else the film offers subsequently. It also has a scene-chewing performance by Mirren, whose veteran KGB agent comes across as tenacious, wily and yet comforting, thanks to the actress’ scene-stealing supporting act that is probably more powerful a statement of female empowerment than Anna herself.
As far as restoring Besson’s standing, ‘Anna’ doesn’t punch as hard as it needs to. Not only is Anna not compelling enough as a character in and of herself, she also lacks a strong enough performer for us to rally around (as compared to say Scarlett Johannson in ‘Lucy’). Perhaps more fundamentally, Besson’s technique of showing things one way and then rewinding to invert our assumptions happens just too many times, leaving us less intrigued than frustrated at his apparent need to demonstrate how he is always one step ahead of us. That said, if you don’t mind an ultimately forgettable espionage thriller with a pretty lead, then you’ll probably find ‘Anna’ just slick and glib enough for an entertaining two-hour diversion.
(Not quite as ridiculously entertaining as 'Lucy', or as intriguing as 'La Femme Nikita' and 'The Professional', Luc Besson's return to female-centric action thrillers has a pretty superficial lead in Sasha Luss and a narrative that thinks itself too smart for its own good)
Review by Gabriel Chong