Anna did not screen for critics in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore. We’re not Los Angeles- or New York City-style huge markets, but still, that’s normally not a very good sign. So was I surprised that the showtime I paid to attend last night of Anna was packed? Yes! Was I surprised that most of those people surprisingly seemed to enjoy Anna? Not really, I suppose, since Luc Besson’s film subsists by imitating better contemporaries (Atomic Blonde, namely) and wrapping up all of its convoluted plotting and boring sex scenes with a faux-feminist bow.
During a year where surface-level “You go, girl!” energy has permeated franchise films like Avengers: Endgame and Dark Phoenix, I guess it’s to be expected, in a reassuring, cynical way, that it’s permeated into original filmmaking too. But if I wanted to be real cranky, I would ask: Is Besson still an original filmmaker? Anna overlaps so much with Besson’s other films, like Nikita and Lucy, that it’s hard to tell. Hot woman is an assassin. That’s it! That’s the whole thing! Hell, the protagonist in Nikita was named “Anne,” and this time around, she’s named “Anna”! Luc! Where is the effort, my man?
MANY SPOILERS FOR ANNA FOLLOW, BY THE WAY, SO IF YOU WANT TO NOT KNOW THEM, TURN AROUND
Anna begins with a purge: In the Soviet Union in 1985, nine agents working secretly for the CIA are rounded up and killed; the KGB agent in charge, Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans, clearly working solely for the check, as he was in Murder Mystery) sends that message to their handler, Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy, very hot but working a Charlie Hunnam-level flat American accent), by mailing him a head in a box. Did you get it! Because they are dead now!
Five years later, a model scout stumbles upon a beautiful young woman selling Russian dolls in an outdoor market. Floored by her beauty and her ease with various languages, the man recruits Anna (newcomer Sasha Luss, actually a Russian supermodel in her second acting role after appearing in Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) to move to Paris, where she’ll room with other aspiring models and work a frenzied editorial pace. After her arrival, Anna starts dating a fellow model Maud (Lera Abova), hopping all over town for gigs, and casually seeing an investor in the modeling business. The man also happens to be Russian, and he’s actually an arms dealer, and suddenly Anna is shooting him in the head. Whoa! What a twist!
We jump back three years (get ready for this pattern—the movie whips around so often and so needlessly that it’s exceptionally difficult to establish the linear timeline), to when we learn that Anna was a military-school dropout whose parents were killed. It would be interesting if this movie had gone in a direction where the KGB killed Anna’s parents for some sort of betrayal and she had to get revenge, but no. That doesn’t happen. Instead, they die in a car accident and Anna becomes a drug addict trapped in a relationship with a tattooed douchebag who looks a little much like Diplo for my liking; in one of the movie’s most exceptionally ridiculous scenes, they get in a car accident fleeing from police and both walk out and away of a flipped car with no major injuries. None! Anna maybe has a cut on her cheek. THAT IS IT. After that incident, Anna is recruited to the KGB by Alex, who kills her boyfriend in front of her and offers her a deal: 5 years of service in exchange for a new life.
Time jumps ahead! Three years later, we’re back to Paris, where Anna crosses paths with Lenny; then six months before, we’re in the Soviet Union, where Anna meets another KGB handler, Olga (Helen Mirren), a weathered old broad who doesn’t think Anna will cut it; then we keep jumping forward and backward in time until we realize Anna is a double agent operating for both the KGB and the CIA, and of course she’s sleeping with both Alex and Lenny, because why not; and then eventually, Anna turns out to be a triple agent, working for the KGB, CIA, and Olga herself. Because Olga is sick of all these men telling her what to do, you see, and Anna feels that too, so the women team up. Didn’t you know that is feminism? Put aside how the first person Anna attacks is another woman her skeezy boyfriend is fooling around with; put aside how the film takes advantage of Maud for lesbian sex scenes with Anna but gives her character no other reason to exist; put aside how we never understand any of Anna’s motivations outside of a vague utterance of “freedom.” Anna must say “freedom” about a dozen times, and we’re supposed to believe she hates what the KGB and the CIA are making her do, but when she sits down with Alex and Lenny together, she thanks them both for making her who she is. You know, like when Sansa Stark told the Hound that all the rape and trauma she lived through made her a stronger person. You know. Feminism!
Anna does that thing where the plot’s timeline is needlessly complex because the narrative itself is so lacking, not only because of the hilariously underdeveloped characters but because of the movie’s embarrassingly limited historical and cultural subtext. (And bad editing: Most of the fight scenes are so frenetically cut that you can’t follow the flow of movement, which feels particularly dated now that we’re all used to John Wick and the previously mentioned Atomic Blonde.) This movie uses a series of impressively lazy components to share its worldview: We know Anna is Russian because she can quote lengthy passages of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and likes chess. Numerous people mention the game, we see a chessboard in her apartment, and then we later watch her playing chess as a way to lull someone into a sense of security. What character detail! Unsurprisingly, the Soviets and the CIA both mention a generic “Middle East” as the bad guys (putting aside the reality that the U.S. helped the Afghans fight the Soviets in, you know, the Middle East). The CIA realizes who Anna is under her varying disguises because of how she holds her purse. And there’s this recurring line Besson uses for humor, I guess, where Anna and Olga stankily say “I work for KGB, baby,” as if one-upping each other on their commitment to a cause that they later easily decide to abandon. Because, you know. Feminism!
The Anna I would have been interested in watching is one scene only: Kept late at a modeling gig by an asshole photographer who yells at the models “Remember, you are princesses, not transvestites” (in fact, all of the photographers in this film are portrayed as egomaniacal jerks, but this is just one of them), Anna grabs a camera and clocks him in the face with it. She then straddles him on the floor, taking pictures of his terrified and bleeding face and yelling commands at him: “Who’s a good bitch dog?” she asks while snapping away. That movie, where Anna is a supermodel who gets radicalized after years of misogynistic behavior into then hunting down sexual abusers, would have been good! That would have been fine! But Besson doesn’t know how to make films where women are actually in charge of their own lives and their own motivations, and so Anna is just more of the same old crap.
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