La Femme Nikita Movie Review

Or just Nikita, as it was called before some guy at Samuel Goldwyn decided that they needed to make absolutely sure everybody knew the film was French and tacked-on that "La Femme." The film that made the career of Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Messenger) starts off on a Paris street as a quartet of jacked-up junkies, including Nikita (Anne Parillaud), stride over rain-slicked cobblestones towards the drugstore they're going to rob for their fix. After a shootout with the police, Nikita kills one of the cops in cold blood. Sentenced to death and supposedly executed, Nikita is instead secreted away into a government program where she's trained to become a secret agent.

For the greater part of her time in the program, Nikita acts like the addict-in-withdrawal that she is, ignoring her trainers and pulling a gun on her handler, the incongruously-named Bob (Tchéky Karyo). Then, threatened with a couple of weeks to get her act together, the antiauthoritarian punk becomes the perfect student. Before we know it, three years have passed and she's ready for her graduation present - an assassination mission at a restaurant that turns into a guns-blazing melee. Like the film's pulse-pounding beginning, it's an impressive bit of mayhem, mostly for the incongruous sight of Nikita, in her chic black cocktail dress, scurrying through a kitchen, blasting away with a massive handgun at thugs packing assault rifles and grenade launchers. But, whereas the opening scenes were shocking in their amoral ferocity, this shootout - including a scene where Nikita dives down a laundry chute to escape a blossoming fireball - shows Nikita to be just another action movie, with the usual tenuous-at-best grip on reality.

As we've seen so little of the details of Nikita's training, it's a struggle to buy her as the cold, calculating assassin who goes undercover as a nurse and is called up to the occasional bit of dirty work by the French government. After years of indoctrination as a spy, she seems to have little ability to tell a convincing lie, and even her trusting boyfriend (Jean-Hugues Anglade, of Killing Zoe and Betty Blue fame, in one of his milquetoast roles) soon begins to suspect something's going on. Called in on a pretty serious mission involving a foreign embassy, Nikita loses her calm at the first hiccup in the plan, and quickly moves on to hysteria. Although Besson probably thought he was humanizing Nikita by allowing her to cry, show fear, and all the rest, the fact that she's surrounded by an almost entirely male cast who mostly keep their wits about them, makes the film come off as patronizing and more than a little sexist. In essence, the other great female screen warriors of this time period - Nikita was filmed in 1990 - The Terminator's Linda Hamilton, would have made pretty short work of this spry and tricky but ultimately pretty weak-kneed girl.

That's not to say that Besson didn't have his finger on something here. The story of the murderer given a second chance at life - by being trained to be an assassin - has a nice ironic twist to it and inspired both the recent cable series of the same name and John Badham's businesslike, American remake Point of No Return. Also, during a time when movie arthouses across the land were choked with Merchant-Ivory costume dramas and fey Parisian relationship stories, La Femme Nikita showed that the French could blow stuff up just as good as anybody in Hollywood.

As always with Besson, the film looks great, with eye-popping colors (the transfer on MGM's new Special Edition DVD could have been better, but definitely does Thierry Arbogast's cinematography justice), and the all-star Gallic cast (including even a short cameo from Jeanne Moreau) is dead-solid perfect. Besson's sense of humor also makes the especially ludicrous final mission at the embassy more palatable, when he brings on the robotic Victor the Cleaner (played with deadpan wit by Jean Reno), who cleans up missions gone awry by essentially killing everyone in sight and liquefying the bodies using a suitcase full of acid. The DVD also includes: "The sounds of Nikita" featurette and a making-of documentary.

Although it's given more attention than it likely deserves due to its French pedigree, Nikita is still a glossy, sexy actioner that strives to be more than just another round of spy games.


Comments

La Femme Nikita Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 1990

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