Luc Besson’s “Anna” wrapped photography in December 2017. Less than three months later, Fox released “Red Sparrow,” an extra-icy Cold War thriller about a Russian ballerina (played by Jennifer Lawrence) recruited by Soviet foreign intelligence to become an assassin and spy, trained to use her sex appeal as a weapon while leveraging her intelligence to outwit her handlers.
The day “Red Sparrow” opened must have been a very bad one for Besson, since that movie is basically the smarter, more sophisticated version of the story he’d imagined for “Anna,” which stars model-turned-actress Sasha Luss as a Russian assassin turned model who dispatches KGB targets between fashion shoots. You get the picture. Except that even “Red Sparrow” was a rehash of sorts.
A year earlier, Charlize Theron had appeared in “Atomic Blonde,” an intense triple-crossing, Iron Curtain action movie, which gave the Oscar-winning glamour queen the opportunity to demonstrate that she could outmaneuver any man — female empowerment as hyperkinetic fashion show.
Already too close to “Anna” in concept, that movie should have sent Besson back to the drawing board — especially when you consider that 17 years earlier, in 1990, he had made a version of all these stories: “La Femme Nikita,” which would have been a fine title for this Russian-accented if-looks-could-kill thriller had he not named an assassin that once before.
Flash forward nearly two decades, and Besson — who has since amassed a full catalog of movies driven by strong female heroines (“Lucy,” “The Lady,” “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc”), which have collectively earned more than a billion dollars at the box office — stands accused of inappropriate behavior by at least nine women, one of whom, actress Sand Van Roy, filed charges of rape with French police last May.
One year later, that off-screen drama has overtaken “Anna,” leading Summit to dump the movie on more than 2,100 screens — a wide release — with no publicity or advance press screenings.
If it sounds like we’re jumping around in time here, that’s a deliberate (if contrived) way of mirroring the style of Besson’s film, which shuffles the events in its title character’s ultra-patient, five-moves-ahead bid for freedom like a sleight-of-hand artist, playing and replaying certain scenes in such a way that audiences must constantly reassess who’s in control.
But it’s one thing to write a character who’s smarter and more talented than everyone in the room and quite another to actually be that person in real life. And Besson, who — like Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, the man responsible for “Total Recall” and “RoboCop” — has a proven gift for making highly polished genre movies that appear to have been tailored to the intellect and interests of 13-year-old male audiences, must now contend with the #MeToo movement. The filmmaker who all but invented the modern female action hero now finds himself under scrutiny for charges of sexual misconduct.
Under different circumstances, “Anna” might have done blockbuster business and launched the career of leading lady Luss. (“Resident Evil” star Milla Jovovich owes her action-figure career to Besson, who saw that potential in her with “The Fifth Element.”) Instead, it’s being analyzed as more of a lecherous exercise in female objectification than empowerment — between which there isn’t so much a fine line as a nonexistent one, depending on what role you perceive sexuality as playing in a woman’s strength.
Had “Anna” come out at the time it’s set, between the years of 1985 and ’90, it surely would have felt like a revolutionary concept: a woman who, without being raped (as in Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45”) or aggressed (à la Gena Rowlands in “Gloria”), transforms into an incredibly resourceful kickass heroine. But culture is changing fast, and critics who once touted Tarantino as a feminist for celebrating such women in “Jackie Brown” and the “Kill Bill” movies are now grossed out by the director’s foot fetish.
“Anna” shows that Besson is the same filmmaker now that he was 20 years ago, and unlike his title character, who lithely adapts to whatever situation she’s in, he’s been telling roughly the same story over and over all this time. The thing is, he’s great at it, and if you’re a fan of Besson’s slick, comic book-style approach (he storyboards complex scenes with a logical elegance that makes them clean and intuitive to follow), then “Anna” is bound to entertain.
Luss, whose widely spaced cerulean eyes and poker-faced model’s pout lend themselves nicely to the idea that Anna is an inscrutable nesting doll of multifarious personalities, rises to the challenge of such a physical role, the demands of which range from elaborately staged fight sequences to carefully modulated micro-expressions. She’s not terribly interesting at first, pretending to sell Matryoshka in a Moscow market where Anna is discovered by a French talent scout and whisked away to the frenetic Paris fashion scene. (Everyone associated with that world, but especially the demanding hacks who photograph Anna, are portrayed as monsters — like caricatures of tyrannical film directors.)
It’s not until almost half an hour later, after Anna has been recruited and trained by the KGB, when she is sent in to assassinate a heavily guarded Russian goon with nothing more than an unloaded weapon, that we begin to appreciate the actress’ potential. The scene is brilliantly choreographed and conveys for the first time how a woman previously characterized by her legs and lashes can actually think on her feet.
Among Anna’s skills, we’re told, are an aptitude for languages (with the exception of an early flashback, performed in Luss’ native Russian, the film was shot in English), excellent marksmanship, advanced martial arts training and a knack for chess. This last detail is as obvious a metaphor as it sounds, since Anna must always be several moves ahead of her minders — whether red-blooded recruiter Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans, with whom she has great chemistry); his sour-faced supervisor Olga (Helen Mirren, who purses her lips and pretends to be ruthless); or the flirtatious CIA agent, Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy), who falls under her spell.
Besson, who wrote “Anna” himself, wants the guessing game of where her allegiances lie to appear complicated, but it’s rather elementary, making the plot of John le Carré’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” feel like higher-level calculus by comparison. If not for the distraction of the nonlinear time jumps (clearly signaled by on-screen text, so audiences are never lost), it might almost be described as simple-minded — which is a considerable improvement over the unnecessarily complicated “Atomic Blonde.” Besson’s set-pieces may not be as show-offy as the ones David Leitch directed in that film, but they feel fresh and playful, as in the stylish body-count-accumulating montage set to INXS’ “Need You Tonight.”
Will anything in “Anna” take audiences by surprise? Nothing so much as the fact that such a broadly appealing mainstream thrill ride should be released so unceremoniously as this, almost as if it were being done to fulfill contractual obligations. It’s nowhere near the embarrassment of Brian De Palma’s “Domino,” or any number of recent studio tentpoles. Nor is it fresh enough to pretend that audiences had missed out on something special if it had been buried altogether — except perhaps for Luss, who’s bound to get another shot.