Starring Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy, Luke Evans and Lera Abova. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Opens Friday at major theatres. 119 minutes. 14A
Luc Besson shamelessly repeats himself with the female assassin thriller Anna, having been down this road before with La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional and Lucy.
The French writer/director/producer knows it, too, but originality is the least of Besson’s concerns. He’s licking his wounds after the sci-fi bomb that was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in 2017 and the rape allegations, recently dismissed by a Paris prosecutor, that he’s fought over the past year.
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Anna, delayed for a year by Besson’s legal woes, amounts to a career resuscitation bid — one that might actually work, thanks to entertaining exertions by Sasha Luss, the Russian supermodel turned actress who enlivens the title role of a lethal fashionista caught in a post-Cold War spy game.
Anna Poliatova is a Moscow junkie living with an abusive boyfriend (Alexander Petrov) and attempting to survive by selling Russian nesting dolls at a street market stand. She’s spotted by a talent scout for a modelling agency, who takes her to Paris and into the demanding world of international fashion.
For the first half-hour or so, Anna almost seems like Besson’s documentary behind-the-scenes look at the life of a model, where the glamour really is only skin deep.
Besson then starts teasing the viewer, alternating between flashbacks and fast-forwards that slowly reveal what’s really going on, like the toys-within-toys of the dolls that Anna used to peddle.
Modelling proves to be an excellent cover for a glamorous assassin. She can shimmy her way to her prey, who is then swiftly dispatched by guns, knives or whatever else is handy — including china plates and silverware, as in a major action scene set in a restaurant.
We meet Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy), a top CIA agent first glimpsed in a violent prologue, set in the Moscow of 1985, where the U.S. is having a bad day at the hands of vengeful Russia. He is watchful and intentful.
We also meet Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans), a KGB agent who conscripts Anna as a spy for the Russians, and who views her as more than just a stone-cold killer in drop-dead attire — but then so does her modelling friend Maud (Lera Abova), who has no idea about Anna’s real occupation.
Alex works for a boss named Olga, played by Helen Mirren, who is one sharp shot of vodka. She lights her cigarettes with a grenade-shaped lighter and tells a story of having once walked for three days in the woods with a wolf trap attached to her leg.
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“Trouble never sends a warning,” she advises Anna.
Olga functions as both a serious figure of menace and comic relief. Mirren sheathes her character’s intentions behind a granite visage that suggests what Fran Lebowitz would look like as a Bond villain.
Dark humour ripples through Besson’s jigsaw screenplay. Spy fans will be amused at one discussion about how best to cut off a hapless victim’s finger, to avoid casting suspicion of CIA involvement.
Besson films as per usual with the trusty Thierry Arbogast at the lens and Éric Serra handling the ominously romantic score. The movie always looks and sounds great, even as it defies all logic.
And what do we make of Anna? Her allegiances are always in doubt, although her intentions are clear: she wants her freedom, from whoever will give it to her and no matter what it costs to get it.
Luss convincingly channels that brutal determination. All those years of being in the cutthroat world of real-life modelling have served her well.
Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm