A pretzel shaped thriller, Anna finds director Luc Besson applying some creative flashbacks. It takes a little while for this technique to justify such repeated use. However, once the elements come together satisfaction reigns. Indeed, watching the film again should relax any assertion that Besson was milking this well worn cliche. Above all, leading actress Sasha Luss guarantees distinction not only in stylistic presentation but emotional growth.
Recruited by the KGB, Anna (Luss) understands that being an assassin won't be a lifelong calling. In fact, Alex (Luke Evans) assures her that five years will be the full term of her commitment. Meanwhile, she assumes the cover of a top fashion model, attending photo shoots while her handler Olga (the incomparable Helen Mirren) provides dossiers on key targets. Then there's CIA point man Lenny (Cillian Murphy, very good here), who cannot hide his attraction for Anna, even though the latter's activities are being closely scrutinised.
If Anna had simply copied the formula handed down by Besson's 1990 picture La Femme Nikita, fascination would wither. Crucially, he keeps us guessing just when those flashbacks are starting to feel unwelcome. This device becomes a much needed ace, supporting the structure while adding precious veins which feed oxygen to the characters.
Like Angelina Jolie, Jessica Lange and Blake Lively, Sasha Luss harnesses the duality which gives her character strength and vulnerability. She plays the fast moving assassin as someone whose goals remain clear right up until the final move. She handles herself to the manner born, her lean physique in step with the tradecraft. Because her aspirations go beyond the job, we root for her and hope that she can break free.
In his straight roles, Cillian Murphy adds scant variation. Ask him to smile, and it's like the man has just been tazered. Regardless, there's a professional occupancy behind his posture and line deliveries, making the diplomatic seem at once disarming and potentially dangerous. In Anna, he can seem aloof while raising our awareness for what's coming next.
Next up, Luke Evans might always be remembered as the archer who achieved fifteen famous minutes in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Verily, Besson doesn't ask too much of him. Otherwise, the Russian accent seems passable and his screen presence dutifully on point.
What Anna needed most was the grand Helen Mirren, a spirited vixen able to make us hang on every syllable like it was iambic pentameter. She's the silent authority, using looks and gestures only years of varied experience can muster. View the film with Mirren in mind, and it's a transformative experience.
(Released by Summit Entertainment and rated "R" by MPAA.)