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Atomic Sparrow

Sasha Luss
Sasha Luss
 119 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByLuc Besson
Starring: Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren    

If the second movie that comes out on the same general subject in a short time rarely does as well as the first, then the third time is definitely not the charm. That’s the case for Luc Besson’s Anna, a movie that bears a striking similarity to his breakthrough film, La Femme Nikita nearly three decades earlier. Frankly, mainstream movie audiences have such short memories that they aren’t likely to hold Nikita against a director who has made one stylized film after another in that same mold. They are, however, likely to criticize a movie that’s a derivative rehash of two much more recent films, Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow.


The similarities between Anna, on the one hand, and Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow on the other are striking, and in many instances, the differences among the three find Anna considerably lacking. Whereas the earlier two movies starred Oscar-winning actresses Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence, Anna boasts a fashion model turned actress in only her second film. All three films deal with espionage involving the United States and Russia, with twisted, intricate plots and characters whose loyalties are uncertain. But Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow feel original, while every aspect of the plot of Anna feels as if viewers have seen it numerous times before. And, if they have seen the earlier two movies, then they have seen just about every plot nuance of Anna.


Anna is the type of movie that jumps back in forth in time on several occasions, with title cards telling viewers that upcoming scenes take place five years later or six months earlier. The bulk of the movie takes place in the late 1980s, the dying days of the old U.S.S.R. The notorious KGB decides to “recruit” Anna (Sasha Luss), a small-time petty thief and hooker whose primary offense until then had been a poor choice of boyfriends. The recruitment is essentially a “join us or die” offer.  Anna’s chief trainer and handler is the hardnosed KGB officer Olga (Helen Mirren, looking like she’s auditioning for the role of Rosa Klebb in a remake of From Russia with Love). While in training, Anna also becomes bed buddies with Alex (Luke Evans), the KGB officer who recruited her initially.


After a training regimen that’s not nearly as interesting to watch as what Jennifer Lawrence undergoes in Red Sparrow, Anna gets her graduation examination, an assignment to kill a man surrounded by bodyguards in a crowded restaurant. The job doesn’t go as planned, since Anna’s gun doesn’t work correctly, and she has to improvise. The scene is the highlight of the movie, a spectacular set piece rivaling Charlize Theron’s big fight scene in Atomic Blonde. That scene alone is almost worth the price of admission.


After that sequence, which takes place approximately halfway into Anna, the movie becomes a combination of highly stylized fashion model photography shoots and flawlessly executed assassinations. Anna becomes a high-end Parisian fashion model, in one of those convenient coincidences that occur only in the movies. All the while, she uses her modeling career as cover to romance various KGB targets, get past their security and into their bedrooms, and then kill them. Her training really pays off in this regard, since she is both a martial arts expert and a crack shot. Before long, Anna picks up a new boyfriend, CIA agent Leonard Miller (Cillian Murphy), who turns her into a double agent for the CIA. 


Or, he might have turned her into a double agent, because Anna is the type of movie in which no one and nothing is what it first seems. Besson, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film, delights in flashbacks, flash-forwards, and replaying scenes from different perspectives. In the hands of a skilled writer, this type of dizzying twistedness can cause mental headaches for the audience trying to figure the story out, followed by enormous enjoyment as each surprise is revealed.


Unfortunately, Besson is not that skilled a screenwriter. He telegraphs his surprises with some heavy-handed dropping of clues so that the audience is immediately aware that something is amiss. And, since there are only about a half dozen characters in Anna with significant speaking parts, guessing what’s going on is rarely all that difficult. Besson’s work is also overshadowed by Red Sparrow, which pulled off several of the same plot twists that Besson attempts here, only the earlier film did so with more flair.


Despite its derivative plot that’s both overly complex and simple to figure out, Anna is a lot of fun to watch, thanks to Luc Besson’s skillfully choreographed set pieces and a solid performance by the relatively inexperienced Sasha Luss. The restaurant fight scene and a later scene in which Anna has to escape from an even more heavily guarded building reminded me of the John Wick movies, except with the considerably sexier Luss effortlessly shooting and battling her way through her mission. The difference between Anna and the John Wick movies, however, is that the producers of the John Wick films never let the preposterous story get in the way of the lively action. Besson, on the other hand, wants us to take his heroine as a serious character wrestling with the various pulls on her loyalties. Of course, a skilled writer and director could have made a good film that worked as both drama and stylized actioner. In fact, Besson’s early work included a couple of movies that came close to pulling off that feat, La Femme Nikita and Leon the Professional. But Anna doesn’t quite get there.


How much audiences will enjoy Anna depends on their willingness to put up with a silly and convoluted story to get to some really nifty, well-staged action scenes. This movie is at times close to, but never reaches the level of the Theron and Lawrence efforts with similar, albeit better, stories. Still, it’s an improvement over Besson’s colossal misfire, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (in which Luss made her acting debut). For non-superhero led action, Anna should satisfy undemanding viewers at least until Hobbs and Shaw rolls around.

In this clip, Helen Mirren and Luke Evans discuss Sasha Luss's qualifications as an agent.

Read other reviews of Anna: 

Anna (2019) on IMDb