On improvising a burglary at a shady tycoon's home, Fred takes refuge in the hip and surreal universe of the Paris Metro and encounters its assorted denizens, the tycoon's henchmen and his disenchanted young wife.
An urgent life-or-death dilemma befalls Nikita--the feral street girl and violent drug addict--after killing a police officer at point blank. Hopeless, Nikita is given a new lease of life, when she reluctantly exchanges her doomed fate for a secret government program that promises to mould her into a cold-blooded assassin under the wing of her sadistic mentor, Bob. Now--with a new set of skills, a new identity, and lethally sophisticated looks--Nikita is the ultimate weapon and the perfect puppet for doing the government's dirty work; however, what happens if this trained killer chooses love over death?Written by
plenty of verve and style, and a (rightfully) perennial favorite of French spy thrillers
Luc Besson was on a hot streak in the late 80s/early 90s, and La Femme Nikita (or just Nikita for short) is almost as good as he got at putting his own distinctive stamp on a genre that many auteurs have trouble molding. The spy thriller is great for blockbuster audiences, but to make it into a strong romantic drama is always tricky, as there's the chance for too much one-dimensional theatrics or more attention paid to the plot convolutions than actual human emotions. Nikita squares this problem away just with the protagonist: a young punk (Anne Parillaud, in her most recognizable, near star-making performance) who kills a cop in the midst of a shoot-out is sentenced to life, but then sort of resurrected following the lead of a member of a covert spy organization, and given an ultimatum: become a spy/assassin, or die. She complies, and in a few years time turns into Josephine, who gets orders on the outside from time to time to do tasks like dress up in a maid's outfit to serve potential targets, or to ready herself to kill someone long-range at a moment's notice.
Besson crafts his main story by creating a sort of love triangle between Nikita/Josephine/Marie, her boss Bob, and her conventional lover Marco, a grocery store cashier who doesn't know what she really does. Besson tools with the elements for a much more conventional thriller, and from time to time it could appear like La Femme Nikita will veer into that realm and not return. But Besson is smart; he crafts the first hour like a kind of 'Taming of the Shrew' saga (or 'Taming of a Shrill Bad-ass'), filled with juicy, dark humor ranging from the ultra-violent (pencil in the hand anyone?) to the silly and playful (training with karate instructors). And as pure director of action sequences Besson shows himself as one of the more distinct masters; it's succinctly fresh and tense while holding the ingredients for what mainstream audiences crave, chiefly in that centerpiece as she is told to kill someone on the night of a seemingly hot date with Bob. Even in the little things, like the scene where she watches the spy put together the concoction for the target in the hotel, works on the purest technical terms.
But La Femme Nikita, for the most part, also works on emotional levels too. Besson won't be above throwing in a hard-boiled killer in the midst (Jean Reno's Victor, my favorite supporting character if only for a few pivotal scenes, and a precursor to Leon), but he'll also subvert it just a tinge for good measure. I loved seeing when Josephine has to take out the woman in Venice, her shot in sight, and is moved to tears through the words that Marco speaks to her, truthfully, not in any terms that deem him as the boring "safe" character, but as her kind of salvation from a life that she's been forced into as a final alternative. As happens often in Besson's work, in fact, the female character is put into a realm of personal chaos that is created by or leads to murder and, at the least, harrowing times with the one she cares for or about (i.e. Portman in Leon, Leeloo in Fifth Element, Joan of Arc, even Angela in Angel-A). It's not simply a gimmick in having the character be a woman- it's essential to Besson's track as a filmmaker, and Praillaud is excellent for the sort of ups and downs the character goes through, sometimes in the same scene!
This isn't to say there are a few minor liabilities, if only from my perspective: the music is usually effective in that early electronic-techno beat style for a modern thriller, yet sometimes it's also a cross between a soft-core porn and Weather channel muzak; the ending felt abrupt, or at least on a first viewing (albeit it's hard to top the scene at the ambassador's HQ); and, as a minor criticism, what happened to showing how Nikita learns how to smile? (Seems a little crucial as something of her personality that's skipped over, when made to seem like a big stepping stone by Jeanne Moreau's enigmatic character.) Otherwise, a must-see, and one of Besson's best films.
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