Back in 2017, when we were foolishly thinking “Man things are bad, but hey, they probably won’t get worse,” Charlize Theron did a spy action movie whose trailers made it look like a female-led John Wick. (Yes there’s a pun to be made there but it’s a bad pun and I am above it.) This was a mislead, for while it did have some good action beats, most of them were in the trailer. All that was left was a kind of slow-paced, slightly dull espionage… story? Normally I’d use the words “suspense” or “thriller” but neither seems applicable here… And then suddenly, in the last five minutes, they pull two different massive plot twists. Alliances are betrayed, identities revealed, no one is who you thought… and apparently they had so much fun doing that they did it again two minutes later.
I tell you this story so you have some context when I say that Anna feels like the movie Atomic Blonde tried to convince us it was going to be.
Writer/director Luc Besson, who brought us sprawling and sometimes coherent sci-fi flicks The Fifth Element and Valerian and City of 1000 Planets, gets back to what he does best… waifish ingenues whupping a truly astonishing amount of ass. Following in the footsteps of past Besson leads Milla Jovovich (Fifth Element), Cara Delevigne (Valerian), Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), and the original femme Nikita Anne Parillaud, is Sasha Luss, a Russian model whose previous acting credits are… let’s see… a music video, a perfume ad, and… huh. A CG character in Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets, go figure. For a model without much of a reel, she does okay.
Okay. So. This movie takes place at some point in the 80s, before the fall of the Soviet Union… but after the launch of iMac computers? Which were released seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union? And also everyone has flip phones and even impoverished, drug-addicted petty criminals have laptops with WiFi? Jesus. Well, Besson was always a “Big Idea” guy, not a “Consistent Detail” guy.
Anyway. We open with the CIA having a bit of a bad day. The KGB has identified at least ten American agents, operatives, and moles, rounds them all up in one fell swoop, and uses them to send a pretty grizzly message to their boss at the CIA (Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor you call to play smug, loathsome Americans you still kind of like). Some time passes, and we meet Anna, who is selling nesting dolls in a street market stand.
I feel it is important at this point to tell you that while Anna is an orphan, and she had relatives in the Russian navy, her parents were not killed in that KGB purge I just mentioned. In fact that KGB purge plays no role in her backstory at all. It does come back, but only very slightly, so… opening with it feels weird to me looking back.
What felt weird at the time was that Anna is offered a modelling job while working her stand, and is swiftly flown to Paris to begin her new career, and isn’t human trafficked or pimped out at all. It’s, like, a legit modelling job, and nothing I know about Eastern European women being offered modelling gigs or dance scholarships in the west suggested she was going to have a good time. But she moved to Paris and did photo shoots and went to parties and sure a bigwig at the agency took an interest in her but in a very healthy and consensual way!
And then she kills him in his hotel room.
Time for a flashback!
Months before Anna was plucked off the streets of Moscow to be a fashion model, she was plucked off a much worse street to be a KGB assassin. Which, to her eyes, went from having her life controlled by her abusive petty criminal boyfriend to having her life controlled by her handler (
Generic Brand Orlando Bloom Luke Evans) and his unforgiving boss (Dame Helen goddamn Mirren, killing it), which… doesn’t always feel like an improvement.
From there it’s twists and turns and betrayals and reveals and “Come on, you didn’t think they cast Cillian Murphy for a role that minor, did you,” and more than a couple of flashbacks to explain the latest twist… and some very good action sequences. Still not as many as, say, John Wick or anything, but Anna’s test assignment in a restaurant, a battle that will have you asking “How many security guards can this guy afford,” is very impressive, and Sasha Luss is doing most of the fight/stunt work herself, and it’s great.
Anyway, good time. It’s on Prime if you’re so inclined.
(I followed this up by rewatching Hanna with Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, and Jessica Barden, which also involves a waif assassin, and all you need to know is that shit holds UP.)
Next Page: An angry rant about a bad sequel