After “Valerian”, director Luc Besson has been balancing the different essences of life with his company in financial trouble for a short time. Personally he was being attacked because of supposed conduct. And a film that was supposed to be his big return to large film making simply tanked. In personification, “Valerian” wasn’t bad. It was perfectly on par with “The Fifth Element” but made in a different time. “Lucy” right before had shown with the right actress despite a slightly incomplete script that the visceral nature of the director was still there. The biggest issue, not to get too industry about the failure of “Valerian”, is that in the US, STX Films pretty much released it cold with no anticipation. And it failed. With his new film “Anna”, the trailer was phenomenal building up the aspect of a new action girl in Sascha Luss. Besson, despite anything, has the ability to create wonderfully strong female characters while still engaging in the beauty and the world of modeling he seems to love so much. The trailer simply teased one major scene which in retrospect is interestingly enough a lipnus test. “Anna” approaches what “Red Sparrow”tried to do but with a blank canvas and not Jennifer Lawrence. Within this construct, you have no preconceived notions of who Anna is because that is not her name. This is why you can buy more into the idea of it. Now while much of the movie tries to play to certain spy quotients, it is the nature of freedom that rings true even as the film is set right after the fall of the Soviet Union per se. The KGB essence here is interestingly done both in its recruiting but also the showing of Russia right after that fall. It doesn’t go easy on American intelligence either. It almost makes the point that you are under the thumb of power no matter where you are.
Sascha Luss balances this nicely as “Anna” but it helps that she has a couple actors working against her, who despite that their characters are a bit thin and sometimes more of sexual playthings to Anna than actual connections is interesting. It works because it is a reversal of what was the norm 20 years ago. Cillian Murphy plays one of his more mainstream roles and shows a level of charm and cool we haven’t seen on screen from him in awhile. Luke Evans, right off “The Alienist”, creates the right amount of patriotism while understanding this girl he recruited. Anna’s girlfriend in the modeling world creates the right amount of offset in social representation to show that identity is simply a construct depending what you want in life. It is not a criticism on anything at times with either sex except a certain degree of survival and understanding. Helen Mirren has the most interesting role in that of KGB overseer. This is the most hidden she has been with a sense of cunning, humor and drama that sometimes Besson can get out of his actors. “Red” for Mirren was play. Here she is doing some magnified work. Besson still has it. The action sequences are visceral. He can do it with a smaller amount of money but he likes the toys of big film production. The film is fun to watch, plotted decently, stylized cool (watch out for an INXS song montage) and, while not Besson’s best, far from his worse and continually shows his focus for talent. Initially this reviewer thought this might be a retooling or telling of “Matilda”, the child Natalie Portman played in Besson’s “The Professional” as a grown up assassin. A key plot turn in the movie has Sascha wearing a black bob that has harkings back to that character. Alas “Anna” will probably be lost since, for likely reasons, Summit/Lionsgate released it cold. A movie is a movie, even when it is not….that doesn’t make this one any less entertaining.
By Tim Wassberg
John Wick is a product of his environment yet his choices in terms of his future seem to take on a certain level of vigilante mysticism with a certain lack of logic. The difference between Wick and Neo in many instances is that Wick doesn’t know when he is out of gas…or when to doubt. There is no stopping. The fantastic aspect is that Keanu Reeves is up for anything. This is him through and through in these scenes. While there might be some face replacement, this is mostly all him. Very few people can do this and Keanu is getting older but this demands respect. At one point, even though the film is playing with this idea, his adversaries could have already killed him if they didn’t have as much respect for him as they do. Some of the action scenes including ones with knives and dogs are undeniably thrilling at times. And the film does understand that guns aren’t the “be-all-end-all” is normal circumstance. But at times, one is taken out of the movie because of a certain suspension of disbelief. For instance, there is a gunfight in a horse stable in Manhattan (which is unusual anyway) but when the guns seem to go off there is no response from the horses which causes a break in the world. Hence the viewer can start looking at all of the muzzle flashes being replacements. It takes out some of the visceral nature of the scenes.
It seems more and more with these movies that they are simply just trying to set up the next big set piece to see how far they can push it. But as a result, it feels a little more empty. The first John Wick had itself in play because it was using the Keanu idea and the aspect of the dog with this new world. Interestingly enough, after seeing “Destination Wedding” of all things, there is definitely a growth in the acting department with Keanu. But with this, it all becomes an exercise but weirdly enough it feels like an exceptionally produced TV show at times with the story structure simply allied in place to make it to the next week. Now that said, there is no way some of this action could be done on TV. New York keeps looking more neon coated and wet than ever before so it serves the noir texture. And when Keanu says “I need guns. Lots of guns”, there is no denying the pop culture impact of the original Matrix as in that one line. But the first “Matrix” knew its rules and never broke them (at least in the first film).
The movie jumps a little bit because of this but the aspect that makes the best impression is Halle Berry as a former foe/ally/manager of Wick. This is the coolest we have seen Berry in a while. It reminds one of her films like “Swordfish”. She is bad ass, she is doing the action and, in a scene in the study, she acts the hell out of it, almost overly so. That dynamic offers a bit more to the progression but like all things it is brief. Angelica Huston adds a bit of intrigue and beauty in a role suited to her that gives poise, grace and a bit of darkness. Mark Dacascos as Zero, a frenemy of sorts is also quite good but the tone of play in his performance is both interesting and yet out of character. “John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum” will no doubt thrill audiences and perhaps bait a third one but the elegance of the original is, in a certain way, lost. The problem, like “The Matrix” is that you don’t want the mythic to become rote. But it also doesn’t need to move to melodrama. And that is one thing John Wick will never bow to.
By Tim Wassberg