La Femme Nikita (1990)
By: Julian on September 19, 2010  | 
Madman | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | French DD 5.1 | 112 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Anne Parillaud, Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Jeanne Moreau, Jean Reno
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Country: France
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La Femme Nikita, or just Nikita in its native France, is the first of four commercial films director Luc Besson helmed in the nineties. I'm a fan of all four – that's Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element and Joan of Arc – although they're of variable quality (but Leon is an almost-perfect action movie). La Femme Nikita requires a fundamental suspension of belief before it moulds itself into an absolutely rip-roaring action flick that becomes quite undone in its last act, although some of its set-pieces remain the blueprint for action filmmakers.

Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is a drug-addicted teenager who hangs around with some real undesirable types. One night, the junkie gang go on a midnight armed robbery of a pharmacy, owned by the father of one of their group. When the owner turns up with a shotgun to find his son and his friends pillaging the store, things rapidly spiral out of hand: the father is shot and killed, and the gang engage in a stand-off with the responding police units. The group are all shot to death by police with the exception of Nikita who – amazingly – blows away a cop who leans down to help her.

Nikita is sentenced to life imprisonment and, whilst in custody, she is drugged by police and made to think she is being killed at the behest of the State. When she comes to, a suited DSGE agent (Tchéky Karyo) issues Nikita with an ultimatum: lest she wish to reside in Row 8, Plot 30 (the gravesite that her 'funeral' had already been held at), she clean up her act and become a government assassin.

Here, obviously, is that 'fundamental suspension of belief' bit that I mentioned earlier.

There's not much of a decision to make, and there wouldn't be much of a movie unless Nikita settles on the latter. She is trained in weapons and the martial arts (although Nikita proves to be quite proficient in both) and is fashioned into a sleek, sexy businesswoman type. After completing her initiation mission, Nikita is dropped into Paris as a sleeper agent at the DSGE's beck and call.

This transformation, an extended montage, is brilliant filmmaking, a little snippet of what Besson was to offer four years later with Leon. But by the time we get to Nikita's romancing of the bloke in the shopping aisles (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and their uneasy relationship tempered by Nikita's connection to her work and her recruiting agent, the threads loosen.

The whole thing unravels shortly after the Cleaner (Jean Reno, in an absolutely hysterical performance of an absolutely hysterical character) exits. Granted, this doesn't leave much duration in which Nikita buckles at the knees, but the hurried payoff lets down an otherwise-grand action movie and leaves a lasting blemish on the film. Probably the simplest explanation for this is that Besson is still cutting his teeth as a filmmaker. It must be said, though, that even if the pacing is a bit off, Besson must be credited for some of Nikita's spectacular set-pieces: Nikita's induction hit, the assassination in Venice and any scene featuring the Cleaner are cases in point. A piece of trivia on the Cleaner, no doubt Nikita's coolest character, Quentin Tarantino apparently drew inspiration from him for the Pulp Fiction icon the Wolf, played by Harvey Keitel, one year after Keitel played the Cleaner in Nikita's 1993 American remake. In 1994, Besson gave us Leon, whom he described as the Cleaner's American cousin.

Nikita has enjoyed (or perhaps borne) a series of remakes and imitators. John Badham directed a decent American remake Point of No Return (titled The Assassin in Australia, with Bridget Fonda as Nikita/Maggie), a five-season Canadian TV show created by Joel Surnow (24) aired from 1997 to 2001, and Warner Brothers is producing a new show Nikita, with Maggie Q in the starring role, based on the premise that Nikita has defected from her employing agency and is now set on bringing them down.

The performances in Besson's Nikita are great (Karyo is the stand-out, and Parillaud won a César for her efforts) and the action is wonderfully enjoyable, but the rushed finale is so disengaging that, by the time the credits roll, one is left quite disappointed.
Nikita is presented in 2.35:1, with 16:9 enhancement. It's a nice, clear picture that shows off Thierry Arbogast's slick cinematography.
Two French Dolby audio tracks, presented in 5.1 and 2.0.
Extra Features
A 21-minute making-of, a 5-minute featurette on the music, three one-minute snippets on three set pieces, a miniscule half-minute interview with Karyo talking a bit about Besson and a theatrical trailer. Trailers for other Directors Suite releases – Besson's The Big Blue, Funny Games, Control and Angel-A are also included. A decent set, and as good a release as you'll find for the English-speaking market.
The Verdict
La Femme Nikita is a potentially great film undermined by a hastily and lazily executed conclusion. Definitely worth a watch though, if only for the performances and some tremendously cool action excess.
Movie Score
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