In his over 35-year career, French writer-director-producer Luc Besson has been responsible for blockbuster hits like “The Fifth Element” and spectacular flops like “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.” But at his highest and lowest, Besson could usually count on the support of a devoted subset of cinephiles, drawn to his distinctive approach to action and fantasy films, which combine the aloof cool of fashion photography with comic book exaggeration.
Even the “Besson can do no wrong” crowd though was tested last year, when nine women came forward to accuse the filmmaker of a variety of offenses, ranging from sexual harassment to rape. Besson’s latest film “Anna” arrives in theaters with some of those allegations still hanging in the air — and minimal promotion.
And frankly, it’s hard to watch “Anna” without thinking about Besson’s offscreen issues, given that it’s about a woman who stands up for herself after a lifetime of being abused and manipulated by men.
Russian supermodel Sasha Luss stars as Anna, recruited by the KGB to become one of their deadliest assassins, while working undercover in the early 1990s at a top Parisian modeling agency. Helen Mirren and Luke Evans play Anna’s handlers, while Cillian Murphy is a CIA agent who sees through her secret identity, and tries to take advantage of his intel.
Besson employs a clever structure for “Anna,” starting with a seemingly unrelated incident in 1985, then skipping ahead to 1990 to the moment when Anna gets tapped to become a model, before jumping back a few years to fill in some important details. The rest of the movie follows this pattern: bringing the heroine to some major milestone in her career as a covert killer, before pausing and rewinding to show the audience something essential that happened earlier.
“Anna” has a lot of similarities to “La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional” and “Lucy” — all Besson movies about strong young women forced into a life of violence. As a slick, over-the-top action picture, “Anna” works splendidly. It features multiple jaw-dropping set-pieces, including a restaurant hit where Anna walks in with an unloaded gun and walks out after killing about a dozen thugs. The plot, while fairly predictable, is at least craftily constructed. On its own merits, this is one rollickingly entertaining film, that under ordinary circumstances Besson fans would adore.
But given everything that’s been going on, “Anna”’s underlying themes just don’t resonate as they’re meant to. The film falters when it tries to be an aspirational tale, about a woman tired of being shuffled from one “grey box” to another (from a pauper’s apartment to a military academy to a cramped models’ condo), and who’s exhausted by the piggish fashion photographers and demanding spy-masters who dominate her days.
Besson has always been adept at the unreal — like telling a pulpy story about a gorgeous model who’s also a lethal killer. But perhaps unintentionally, his “Anna” is a well-made movie that feels like a dodge: a cartoon entered into evidence as a personal testimony.
Rated: R, for strong violence, language, and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In general release