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Hardened criminal Maggie Hayward's consistent violence, even in police custody, ends in the execution chamber. However, top-secret US government agent 'Bob' arranges a staged death, so Maggie can be elaborately trained as a phantom killer and subdued into obedience. She gets a new cover identity as saleswoman Claudia Anne Doran. She also gets a wonderful house-mate, building super J.P., a broad-minded, gentle photographer. The two fall in love, and that complicates hit jobs. His good influence extends to breeding in her a conscience that places love over business, unlike Bob's agency. Written by
"Point of No Return", or "The Assassin" as it is known here in Britain, is, of course, a remake of Luc Besson's French thriller "Nikita", and keeps closely to the plot of the original, although the action is transferred from France to America. Some of the names, such as Victor or Amande/Amanda, are the same as, or very close to, those used in the original film, although the name of the main character is changed from Nikita to Maggie. (Besson had, for reasons best known to himself, given his heroine a masculine Russian Christian name).
Like Nikita, Maggie is a criminal and drug addict who murders a policeman during a raid on a pharmacy, a crime for which she is sentenced to death. The sentence is, apparently, carried out soon after the trial, but in reality Maggie's life is spared. (The film-makers ignore the fact that in America any death sentence is automatically subject to a lengthy series of appeals and reviews; in California, where the film is set, only thirteen people, out of nearly seven hundred sentenced to death, have been executed during the last thirty years). She is given the option of being trained to work for the Government as a professional assassin; if she refuses she will be killed and buried beneath the tombstone which already bears her name.
Roger Ebert compares Maggie to a modern-day Eliza Dolittle, the heroine of Shaw's "Pygmalion". This may seem an odd comparison, given the nature of the work Maggie is being trained to do, but it is in fact an apt one. The modern assassin must master not only martial arts, weapons skills and computer technology but also such matters as deportment, polite conversation, fine dining and the art of looking beautiful. The rationale is presumably that, as Maggie may be called upon to kill members of America's high society, she needs to know how to behave in their company. The tuition she receives is obviously effective; Maggie enters her charm school with the social graces of an alley-cat and leaves with those of a débutante. For all her poise and glamour, however, she also has the skills of a ruthless killer.
The Government resettle Maggie in Venice Beach where she poses, under an assumed name, as an IT consultant and finds a boyfriend. Occasionally, however, she is called upon to take out a target whom the Government want dead, either by delivering a bomb to their hotel room or shooting them dead in the street. At first she is happy to go along with their instructions, but begins to develop a conscience about what she is doing, and wants to leave her job.
The idea of remaking a modern foreign-language film in English and with an American setting was anathema to many purists, particularly to those (on both sides of the Atlantic) who see Europe as the home of High Culture and America as a land of vulgar Philistines who are too lazy to bother with reading subtitles. This, however, was a view which I found unfair, as "Nikita" did not lose much, if anything, in translation when it was remade. Contrary to what some might think, not every French or European film is an art-house classic; Besson's was a commercial thriller which was itself influenced by American models, especially neo-noir. Film noir, as the name might suggest, has always been appreciated in the French cinema; the influence of Besson's model on John Badham's film might be seen as France's repayment of its debt to America.
Moreover, "The Assassin" has many virtues in its own right. It makes effective use of music; there is a memorable score from Hans Zimmer, possibly influenced by David Hentschel's music for "Educating Rita". The soundtrack also features several songs by Nina Simone, a particular passion of Maggie's. (This seemed a rather conservative taste for a young woman of her generation, but the explanation is that Maggie's enthusiasm derives from her mother).
Bridget Fonda (who has clearly inherited the classic good looks of her Auntie Jane) is very good as the heroine, both as the anti-social rebel of the early scenes and the sophisticated, seductive young lady of the later ones. There are effective cameos from Anne Bancroft as Amanda, Maggie's tutor in the social arts, and from Harvey Keitel as Victor the Cleaner, the ruthless, deadpan killer called in to "clean up" when one of her jobs unexpectedly goes wrong. There is a larger contribution from Gabriel Byrne as Maggie's handler, Bob, a key role as the relationship between the two is a complicated one. At first Bob is only able to handle her by making veiled (and sometimes open) threats about what will happen if she does not co-operate, but later he grows close to her, almost like a substitute father. (She passes him off to her boyfriend as her uncle). He is sympathetic to her desire to leave her job, but his hands are tied by the attitude of his superiors.
As a thriller, "The Assassin" is a fast-paced and exciting one, but it may also have a deeper significance as a critique of the death penalty. Maggie's development parallels that of Burt Lancaster's character Robert Stroud in "The Birdman of Alcatraz", who also starts off as a vicious, conscienceless killer and gradually grows in humanity There is an obvious irony in the fact that she is sentenced to death for murder and that her life is then spared so that she may commit further murders on behalf of the State that has sentenced her. The further irony is that it is her career as an assassin which teaches her the value of human life. 7/10
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