All you need for a movie, Jean-Luc Godard famously declared, is a gun and a girl. His fellow French filmmaker Luc Besson has taken the maxim to heart, albeit with a few upgrades. You could also throw in a knife or two, for example. If the “girl” — a grown woman, really — happens to be adept at a close-combat fighting style and can use a white fur coat straight outta Doctor Zhivago to tangle up opponents while she kicks the crap out of them, that’d be a nice bonus. Some impromptu weapons, like cracked plates and broken glasses or even your run-of-the-mill fork, also help. Oh, and bullets. You need those as well.
It’s hard not to think of Godard’s beautiful reduction of an entire art form to sex-and-violence sensationalism when you watch Anna, or more specifically, the action thriller’s big set piece. To set the scene: Anna (Sasha Luss) is a Russian beauty who’s been living the swank parties-and-photoshoots life of a professional model. In reality, the lithe Eastern European twentysomething is an undercover killer for the KGB, because of course she is. Her handsome handler Alex (Luke Evans) and his boss, a perpetually agitated agency apparatchik named Olga (Helen Mirren, rocking a borscht-thick accent), want to test her mettle. Anna is handed a gun. She must enter a restaurant, find an enemy of the state and shoot him through the head. The task has to be completed in five minutes, give or take. After that, she’s on her own.
So the swan-like assassin sashays through the establishment, walks up to the target, pulls the trigger … and the pistol is empty. Anna will have to improvise. Which she does, showing off some incredible fighting prowess and proving that she can handle herself in a pinch. Down goes an entire cadre of thugs and well-suited brutes, in a flurry of fists and legs and borrowed firearms and cutlery. It’s an incredibly choreographed bit of mayhem, the money sequence that the film feels reverse-engineered to produce, Besson & Co.’s bid to turn their heroine into a sort of Johanna Wick. It’s a rush. A very, very familiar rush.
The whole shebang is a variation on a similar sequence in La Femme Nikita, the influential 1990 shoot-’em-up that helped break the Cinéma du look filmmaker overseas. (To be fair, the original’s Anne Parillaud was given a gun with bullets; she just got screwed over when it came to her assigned exit strategy.) Then again, so’s the whole movie. There are slight tweaks here and there, and the addition of a C.I.A. agent (Cillian Murphy, toxifying his charm) instead of a civilian regarding the central love triangle. For the most part, however, Besson is essentially fashioning something that’s as much a remake as LFN‘s actual American 1993 redo, Point of No Return. Maybe the return to a comfort zone was a salve after the flailing, multi-tentacled flop that was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, or maybe the director simply wanted to stage some cinematic chaos again. But the druggy gutterpunk backstory, the rehabilitation into a deadly human weapon, the moment of moral reckoning, the double crosses and game-of-wits one-upmanship — this is very much Anna‘s narrative structure as well. Only the accents have changed. Call it La Femme Repeata.
This kind of Cold War-a-go-go, deadly-honeypot intrigue is harder to do well than you might think — just ask the folks behind Red Sparrow. So you appreciate it when someone like Besson can make it move like a pro. And despite constantly playing fast and loose with the chronology (all the better to drop in new information so you see what’s really happening, my dear), he delivers a sleek, largely efficient mechanism of adrenaline-soaked déjà vu. A former model herself, Luss isn’t exactly the most versatile performer yet, but she knows how to make a camera love her and also how to slide across a floor while executing some gun fu moves in a constricting dress. Her and Murphy don’t have much chemistry, but they do make for a great pair of competing cheekbones. As for Mirren, she knows exactly what she’s doing, i.e. elevating this get-Moose-and-Squirrel cliché of a role into catnip for camp lovers. No one is having more fun in this movie she is. An eight-year-old at Disneyland wouldn’t have this much of a blast.
There’s one other thing that casts a distinct pall over the proceedings, namely that Besson has been accused of sexual assault against nine different women, including one involved with the production. The filmmaker denies all of the allegations. That doesn’t mean they do not run in the back of your head like a DVD commentary track. It makes you question the bona fides of someone who has long told stories about strong women — this is a director who made an action film around Joan of Arc and once deliriously turned Scarlett Johansson into the next evolutionary step of our species — and who clearly likes watching them shoot, and stab, and suffer. It makes you feel a little queasy when you hear the movie’s questionable last line, even if it’s spoken by one woman to another. It makes you ask: How do you solve a problematic movie like Anna? Suddenly, taking on an eatery filled with goons when you are sans ammo seems relatively tame in comparison.