Jun 22, 2019

Movie Review: ANNA (2019)

French director Luc Besson single-handedly revived the latent Eurospy genre, so prominent in the 1960s, for this century with popular series he produced like the Taken and Transporter movies. Now he finally turns his hand to directing a neo-Eurospy movie himself (his first outright spy movie since the one that put him on the map, 1990’s seminal La Femme Nikita—one of the very best action movies of its decade)… and the results are spectacular. Anna is a slick, sexy, action movie, as the trailers lead you to believe (a twist, in fact, on La Femme Nikita—though more of a “remix” than a remake), but it’s also so much more than that. And it’s a movie very specifically targeted at spy fans. The more you know about the genre, the more you’re likely to appreciate its surprising number of layers.

Like the matryoshka dolls the title character starts out selling in a Moscow market, Anna is a spy movie inside a spy movie inside a spy movie. We tend to divide the genre into the action-packed fantasy school of James Bond and Mission: Impossible and the gritty, more realistic tales of double- and triple-crosses like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Homeland. Anna is both at once. Like you might see a novel that amounts to a le Carré-esque spy tail set in a sci-fi setting (like an intergalactic war), or in a historical setting (on the high seas or what have you), Anna is such a twisty spy tail set in the heightened world of fantasy spy movies. It’s Tinker Tailor set inside of Mission: Impossible, or, more appropriately, John Wick. Anna’s reality is a heightened one. This is a world where a skinny model can take on hordes of armed KGB troops in hand to hand combat… and firmly within that world, this is a gritty, twisty, “realistic” tale of double- and triple-crosses. “Realistic,” obviously, being a relative term.

Anna does not exist in a recognizable real world. It ostensibly occupies a historical setting—the late Cold War, specifically 1985-1990. But this isn’t a late Eighties or early Nineties that anyone who lived through those decades would recognize. Rather, it’s a deliberately inaccurate simulacrum. We might recognize fashions and music of the era, but in this alternate 1980s, we also see technology that did not exist then. Characters constantly use cell phones and pagers that behave like modern smart phones. They are not the obscenely chunky cell phones of the era, but the Nokias of the early 2000s—only chunky in comparison to today’s phones. There are laptops, too, and they, also, are chunkier than those we are used to… but again, the chunkiness of the early 2000s, not the early 1990s. Yet, while this technology didn’t exist in the real period, it might have existed in spy movies of that period, had they been thinking ahead along realistic lines. Other forms of tech—ones that never actually came to be—certainly litter Cold War spy movies. It’s artifice, and intentional artifice. But that’s only one layer—only the outermost matryoshka doll.

In that outer layer dwell recognizable characters from the fantasy spy genre. Foremost among them is Anna herself (Sasha Luss), the “female James Bond”/Modesty Blaise/Nikita archetype—the sexy, asskicking female superspy. (But she proves to have layers of her own.) In the movie’s middle layer lies a more complex, twistier narrative derived from the le Carré school. Here dwells a different kind of spy archetype—one based very obviously on George Smiley. But this archetype, too, has undergone a sex change. Helen Mirren plays the KGB spymaster Olga, and seems to be basing her performance on Alec Guinness’ BBC Smiley portrayal, right down to the distinctive, thick-framed glasses she wears.

All of the characters have inner lives—or inner layers. Most attention is paid to Anna’s—revealing, finally, the film’s innermost matryoshka doll—a cat-and-mouse character study hidden beneath the shoot ‘em up action. Because even within this heightened world of spy fantasy, people are complicated. No one is the simple “cardboard booby” Ian Fleming reductively described James Bond as being. But all three of Anna’s love interests over the course of the movie—Maude (Lera Abova), Alex (Luke Evans), and Lenny (Cillian Murphy)—also have inner lives. Maude’s is dealt with the least, but when a late scene between her and Lenny could cut away as he walks out, instead we dwell on her for several long moments as she cries. This is the classic innocent whose life is inevitably torn apart upon contact with the secret world, and it’s somewhat unusual for a neo-Eurospy-type movie to dwell on such a character at all. Lenny and Alex, both macho genre archetypes on the surface, are also allowed more introspective moments than we might expect. But they are very clearly supporting players in Anna’s story. “Never put your faith in men, Anna. Put faith in yourself,” Alex tells Anna early on. And from there, hers is a journey of female empowerment, with a very rewarding payoff.

In her most revealing speech (which Luss, until recently a model and not an actress, handles impressively), Anna admits, “When I was a kid I used to play with matryoshka dolls, way before I pretended to sell them on the street corner. I loved putting them up and looking at their beautiful faces. It’s a woman inside of a woman inside of a woman. If there would be a doll made of me, what would she be? A daughter? A girlfriend? Russian spy? Model? An American spy? If you go to the very smallest doll buried deep inside and say, ‘what is she?’… I never knew, and I would like to find out.”

But the matryoshka concept is not merely thematic. It’s also structural. Besson’s remarkable script is carefully constructed of different layers. It’s nearly (but not quite) palindromic, treating us to scenes that we think are complete the first time we see them, but later revisiting them and showing another half that reveals far more information, significantly altering the plot. If I’m being cryptic, it’s only because I don’t wish to spoil the actual plot elements revealed as Besson peels away layers; there’s a lot of satisfaction in watching that play out.

Lest I spend too much time on the fascinating inner dolls, however (which become clearer and clearer on multiple viewings), I should make it clear that that flashy outer layer is also terrific. And that may be the only layer some audience members choose to see… and that would be fine. They will still be satisfied. The action is spectacular.

For its first act, Anna plays like a fairly straight remake of La Femme Nikita, relocated from France to Soviet Russia (one setting not yet explored by previous remakes of the original concept, including American, Canadian, and Hong Kong versions of the story). On my first viewing, I thought that was what I was watching, and I was surprised it hadn’t been sold up front as a remake of that endlessly fruitful tale. It’s an interesting idea for a director to take another pass thirty years later at the film that put him on the map. What would he do differently? As it happens, Besson is telling a whole different story. But he makes the most of the Nikita foundation from which to do so. The basic concept is replicated intact: a woman involved with crime and drugs leading a seemingly dead-end life is taken off the streets by a secret government agency and given a new lease on life as a spy... but not given a choice. There are familiar characters (Alex is a version of Tcheky Karyo’s Pygmalion-like spy mentor figure Bob; Maude a gender-flipped variation on the innocent boyfriend Marco), and familiar situations, including the restaurant at which first Nikita and now Anna is given her first assignment—with a duplicitous catch. The catch in Anna is even more devious than the one in Nikita (where the exit she’d been briefed on turns out to be bricked up), and appropriate for the more heightened world in which this movie is set. The scenario escalates into a bloodbath, and it’s the most deliriously cinematic bloodbath I’ve seen in Western cinema in years. (And that includes the expertly choreographed action scenes of the John Wick franchise!) It's hyper violent, yet balletic in its execution.

It won’t be a spoiler to anyone familiar with La Femme Nikita that Anna does, indeed, survive her trial by violence, and impresses the not easily impressed doyenne of Moscow Centre, Olga (a frumped down Mirren channeling Guinness). Because of her beauty, she is assigned the cover of a model and sent to Paris. From there, Anna embarks on a dual career as rising supermodel and secret KGB assassin… and parts ways with Nikita’s path as the film’s further layers start to reveal themselves.

One interesting byproduct of making the movie a period piece is that, with the U.S.S.R. securely relegated to Trotsky’s “dustbin of history,” Western audiences can actually root for a character working for the KGB. Because the Cold War is an old enough conflict now that the specific ideologies no longer matter, we can accept a heroine with shifting loyalties without identifying too strongly with any single one. Call it The Americans Effect.

Of course, Anna has enemies within her own organization as well (including the fearsome director, Vassiliev (Eric Godon), who informs her at the wrong end of a pistol that there is only one way to leave the KGB), and that final layer of the film—the character layer—turns out to typify another favorite spy subgenre of mine, the internecine office politics thriller. Until the last frame of film, you’re never sure who Anna can trust and who she is betraying to achieve her ultimate desire (in fact, there may be just one twist too many)—to break free of the various intelligence services that have control of her, and take the time to get to that very smallest doll buried within herself. This is the story of an asset breaking free and becoming master of her own destiny—learning to put her faith in herself.

Anna is a gritty spy movie within a fantasy one, and a character-focused thriller within a flashy, surface, action picture. It’s a more mature work than many audiences will realize upon first viewing, and rewards repeat watching. It’s the crowning achievement of Luc Besson’s career, and one of the best spy films of this century.


MSWallack said...

Fabulous review. My thoughts about the film were almost identical to those you shared. And I loved that the movie turned out not to be the movie I was expecting (La Femme Nikita '19). It's just a shame that reviewers have been unable to see beyond a short-sighted action movie gloss.

Tanner said...

I'm glad you liked it, too, MSWallack! I agree that it's a real shame most critics don't seem to be on board... or are distracted by other agendas. Also a shame the studio doesn't seem to be promoting it.