I come to praise ANNA, not bury it.
My love for Luc Besson movies is strong. THE TRANSPORTER is beautiful and completely rewatchable, THE FIFTH ELEMENT is creatively wild, and pretty much anything he does is worth checking out.
ANNA is another action movie with KGB spies, the CIA, John-Wick style gun fu and a lot to recommend it. You should fire up the interwebs and watch it when you’ve plumbed the depths of Netflix.
Yet there are laws for action movies, laws carved into our brains and souls by the sweat and blood of Action Movie Gods, and woe unto those writers and directors who willingly break these laws.
ANNA is good.
Unbreaking these laws could have made it great, and there’s always hope for a Special Edition Director’s Cut or whatever.
THE FIRST LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: SAVE THE BEST FOR THE CLIMAX
The exact genre doesn’t matter. Gunslinging westerns, martial arts films, spy thrillers, and Let’s Catch The Genius Serial Killer films all need to do one thing: escalate.
This rule actually applies to every movie and novel. Start strong, but end stronger.
It’s just easier to see and quantify with action movies, because you can do things like count bodies.
What do you want to avoid? The opposite, which would be starting out with your absolute best action scene, then a middling one, and finally an appetizer–or no action scene at all.
That’s basically what ANNA does. There’s a beautiful fight scene in a restaurant that happens early. You’re going to google the thing, so here it is:
Crazy good, right? It makes you expect something even bigger and better at the end.
Except you don’t get that. The climax kinda switches to pure spy thriller instead of action movie, giving the audience get triple-crosses and disguises and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE kinda stuff.
And it feels like a let-down. You’re cheering for our heroine to do the restaurant thing again on the bad guys, except everybody is basically bad and double-crossing each other.
THE SECOND LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: STICK TO ONE TIMELINE
When was the last time you saw a flashback that worked in a movie or book?
They don’t work. I hate them with the fire of a thousand burning suns.
Bad action movies give us a couple flashbacks of the Dead Mentor training the hero and imparting wisdom, right before being killed by gangsters or the villain. Good thrillers avoid flashbacks entirely.
ANNA gives us flashbacks and flashforwards out the wazoo, and it kills the story. Because really what they’re doing is going back to give the audience setups after they just watched the payoffs. It’s not surprising or fun–it’s a lazy way to patch holes in a story. “Hey, here’s three months earlier, which will explain why that just happened.”
No. Just no.
Keep it linear. One timeline, straight through.
THE THIRD LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: GIVE US A VILLAIN
Whatever you think of Tom Cruise, the last MISSION IMPOSSIBLE gave us a great, great bad guy: Superman/The Witcher.
Sure, there was an overt baddie, but he was a puppet of Superman/The Witcher, who was pulling all the strings. And since thrillers are about betrayal, especially spy thrillers, this was a great twist.
ANNA doesn’t give us a villain. There’s no final faceoff and beautiful fight. She slips away.
I’d argue that the most villainous character is Helen Mirren’s, who you can see in the trailer for a bit.
She does all sorts of Very Bad Things, and deserves to get completely Restauranted–but instead, Anna helps her take control of the entire KGB.
So yeah, not a very satisfying ending. Bad guys kinda win while the hero disappears.
Hey, this thing is still fun and completely watchable. Well worth firing up, and there’s nothing wrong with the actors. The lead actor does an amazing job–put her in more movies.
It simply could be much, much better with some structural tweaks. Save the best for last, Luc!