Review by C.J. Bunce
Luc Besson, master of the spy movie and the female assassin, created perhaps his best work in the genre with his 2019 action thriller Anna. Poor distribution and studio problems caused the film to get only a minor theatrical release, but it’s at last widely available, streaming to anyone free on iMDB TV. If you’re like most movie fans and missed it, you’re in for a surprise that rivals many similar action thrillers by one of the greatest writer-directors of our time, including his 1990 film Le Femme Nikita with Anne Parillaud (and its English remake, Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda), and the 1994 movie The Professional (Natalie Portman, Jean Reno). Besson also wrote the screenplays for The Transporter starring Jason Statham (2002), Taken starring Liam Neeson (2008), and Colombiana starring Zoe Saldana (2011). So he knows action, and that’s several assassins, spies, and action sequences in Besson’s personal dossier in additional to his greatest feats, the epic science fiction films The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s that last film he tapped for the star of Anna, a spy movie that’s not a retread on the director’s past work but a superb achievement, with a badass lead and story even better than another spy favorite, Atomic Blonde.
Sasha Luss (the Russian actress who played Valerian’s ill-fated Princess Lïhio-Minaa) plays the complex and driven title character, a young Russian woman who worked her way up the military service and ultimately tapped to be part of the KGB. From its first trailer Anna seemed to be part Red Sparrow and part Atomic Blonde–or another La Femme Nikita–but ultimately Besson’s superb storytelling and cinematic style, his French influences, and Luss in the lead role with a perfect supporting cast pushed the genre ahead, coming together to surpass all of these films. The female Russian agent, honey trap artist trope has never been done so expertly.
Besson experiments with a forward and flashback style that might fail in lesser hands, but here he shows other filmmakers how it’s done. The choreographed assassination scenes are seamless. The story is far more complex than anything that came before, and Besson does it all without the over-the-top sex and sexual violence of some other spy movies. At times the style and Russian overtones evoke The Queen’s Gambit. The nature of the cinema violence stops short of operatic, but may remind viewers why Quentin Tarantino often seems like the American Luc Besson. Some surprise high points include his cinematic angles of Anna eliminating a room full of bad guys, quirky Parisian photographers filming Anna and others on photo shoots as Anna poses as a high-end glamour model, his brilliant montage of Anna in a state of exhaustion as she continues her day job: the monotonous (but stylish) removal of KGB targets.
Sasha Luss’s acting prowess–a term not usually used for models-turned-actors with such few roles–might invoke Léa Seydoux (Spectre, Inglourious Basterds), her confidence is up there with the best of Milla Jovovich, and her style and flare up there with Sofia Boutella in Hotel Artemis and Kingsman: The Secret Service. And Luss holds her own opposite Luke Evans (The Fast & Furious series, The Hobbit series) and Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Tron: Legacy, The Dark Knight Rises). Even better, she plays the perfect trainee under the perfect KGB spymaster, a Bolshevik mama bear played by Helen Mirren, who knows so well the badass spy role thanks to roles as in RED and RED 2 and the Fast & Furious series (where she played Luke Evans’ mother). It’s always tough trying to pinpoint Mirren’s best performance, but Mirren’s Olga could be the most memorable.
How well do you pay attention to details? Find out here. It’s non-stop intrigue and action delivered via a clever back-and-forth storytelling device, well-timed homages, and the very best double-crosses and double agent mechanics ever created for the big screen. Don’t miss it now on the small screen. It’s much better than Red Sparrow and Atomic Blonde in its script, cinematography, style, and choreographed stunt/fight scenes. From one of the finest directors of his generation, Luc Besson’s Anna is streaming now, free on iMDB TV.