What would you get if you crossed Red Sparrow with John Wick? And who would ask, much less answer, such a question?
That would be prolific French film producer, writer and director Luc Besson, who seems to love nothing more than a beautiful young woman who kicks ass. His last hit was Lucy (2014), with Scarlett Johansson as a genetically supercharged warrior, and among his best-known creations is La Femme Nikita (1990), a movie with a premise similar to this one. For Anna, Besson has newcomer Sasha Luss in the title role, as an elite KBG assassin. (The film is set in the late 1980s, so the Cold War can provide an uncomplicated East-West conflict.)
Luss is a Russian model playing a killer spy working undercover as a Russian model, mostly in Paris. The film’s gimmick is to unspoil a sequence that ends in a supposedly shocking, usually violent twist, then to rewind time to reveal the changing loyalties and hidden motivations intended to give that sequence a completely different meaning. (There are a lot of titles cards along the lines of “Three years earlier,” “Three months earlier,” etc.)
But while the plot line snaps back and forth in time, the characters remain remarkably consistent — and generally defined by one or two simplistic qualities. Anna wants her freedom. Her recruiter, Alex (Luke Evans), wants Anna in bed. Her KGB boss, Olga (Helen Mirren), wants obedience and power. An American CIA agent, Lenny (Cillian Murphy), wants to bring Anna down and, well… he’s a man, right?
Besson’s sensibility remains grounded in the movie’s circa 1990 time frame, when men considered women’s liberation an excuse to skip the preliminaries of seduction and #MeToo was decades in the future. The straight sex in the movie is all abrupt and rough (sometimes bordering on rape), while Anna’s affair with a sweet lesbian model (Lera Abova, in the film’s only sympathetic performance) is consummated only off-screen.
The action sequences — Besson’s specialty in all three of his filmmaker roles — are busy and elaborately choreographed but never quite reach the heights of transgression and tension of the John Wick films that inspired them. They’re a bit stiff and sometimes awkward, perhaps handicapped by Luss’s inexperience.
Following the movie’s twists and turns is moderately interesting if you don’t think too much about the absurdity of the body count. Luss is credible, and her trio of talented co-stars — Mirren, Evans, and Murphy — act like they’re in a serious movie. But, of course, they’re not.
Grade: C. Rated R. Now playing at the AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark, and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photos: Summit Entertainment)