Richard Alleva, Commonweal (1 June 1991)
An old suspense-horror movie trick is used once again midway through the French thriller, La Femme Nikita, and once again it works, but this time with a significant difference. A young man, Marco, the boyfriend of the eponymous heroine, enters the girl's seemingly empty apartment. He calls her name and receives no answer. Ominous. As he walks from one room to the next, the obligatory faint noises in the background work on our nerves along with our knowledge that half the characters in this film are killers and one of them is bound to leap out and eat this poor kid. When will the menace jump out? Now! No. Now! No. Isn't there ever -- there! It's happened. But it's only Nikita playing a little joke on her lover. She playfully jumps Marco and covers him with hugs and kisses. According to convention, this is the moment when we relax after giving the usual embarrassed laugh that acknowledges that, yes, the same damn cheap trick has worked again and we are nothing but Pavlovian pups.
But this time our nervousness isn't completely dispelled. It can't be because the lovely Nikita is herself the most industrious killer in the movie. She is, in fact, the major source of the film's terror as well as the chief object of its pity. She is a killer who has learned to love life. But, precisely in order to continue living, she must be willing to kill again for the masters who have resuscitated her life. A morally insensate murderess has become a lucid, life-cherishing assassin. When Marco is caressed by Nikita, we may feel as if we are watching a man being embraced by an affectionate python.
La Femme Nikita is the perfect title because it indicates the film's theme. Femme, with its manifold connotations of elegance, grace, seductiveness, and/or wifely dignity, seems to have no application whatever to the Nikita we meet at the beginning of the movie. A drug-polluted near-zombie who can only mutter "gotta have it" (a fix), she allows herself to be dragged by her equally abysmal cohorts into their burglary of a pharmacy. Police arrive and the ensuing violence leaves several cops and all the criminals except Nikita dead. One of the officers was killed by Nikita, and her unquenchably violent behavior under interrogation and during her trial is the very thing that gets her off the judicial hook. The French secret service (or whatever the Gallic equivalent of the C.I.A. is called), spotting a potentially ace assassin in the girl, spirits her out of prison and starts training her in various lethal skills. But since an assassin must present a civilized front in order to escape detection and must use intelligence and discipline to carry out missions, Nikita's new masters also detoxify her, teach her computer science, and, through the Pygmalion offices of Jeanne Moreau, give her an education in what can still only be termed "the feminine graces." After four years of training, Nikita's head is clear, her body fit, her exterior chic, her senses alive. And, attracted as she is to her chief spymaster, :Bob," she has discovered or rediscovered sexual love. Taken by "Bob" to an elegant restaurant, she basks in its luxuriousness and serenely contemplates the gift-wrapped birthday present that "Bob" has placed on the table. At last, she is an elegant woman and not a hopped up slum rat. At last, she is La Femme Nikita.
Then she opens her gift. It's a pair of loaded, state-of-the-art handguns. "Bob" tells her to wait until he has left before killing the well-dressed couple at the next table. The tuition for Nikita's education has fallen due.
And that's the theme of the movie: entry or re-entry into civilization through the perpetration of uncivilized acts. Readers of spy fiction by le Carre and Len Deighton are familiar with the perception of espionage as the dreadful girder of society, but La Femme Nikita amplifies this perception by showing up a literally hopeless murderess restored to humanity precisely so that her murderousness may be perpetuated for the sake of (Western world) humanity. If you think that Nikita's case is too special to apply to common humanity, consider the insistence of military leaders ( a sincere insistence, I'm sure) that they don't want stupid, ill-educated recruits going into battle. There are obvious reasons for this. But one definition of an intelligent, civilized person may be this: the possessor of a consciousness that recognizes that other consciousnesses exist and are as precious as one's own. And one definition of a soldier in combat may be this: someone who obliterates other consciousnesses under orders. If you accept those two definitions even as only partial ones, then what military leaders demand of the intelligent soldier is that he or she be a living, anguished paradox. And that's what Nikita is. As the movie progresses, she becomes more and more aware of the contradiction that she is, and she starts to crack under fire.
This moral terror permeates a film which is also filled with the physical terror that any good espionage movie must have. Writer-director Luc Besson can stop your breathing any time he wants. But the violence he stages is calibrated according to what is happening to Nikita's mind. When she shoots a woman from a high window, Besson doesn't move the camera in for a close-up of the victim. At this point in her career, Nikita is keeping her mental distance from the atrocities she commits and Besson makes us share her detachment. When the distant body falls, it looks like a rag doll flopping over. But later, when a fellow agent with whom Nikita has worked closely and whose humanity she cannot deny is butchered in her presence, the blood seems to drench us while Nikita cowers in a corner. Mentally, we cower with her. The question of where to put the camera is always answered by Besson in reference to the moral stage his heroine has reached.
Nikita is played by Anne Parillaud. The controlled rawness of her acting makes everything she does here unforgettable and I intend the adjective to be taken almost literally. Since seeing the film, my brain has been playing and replaying many of her best moments: her feral outcry in the court when she receives a life sentence; her rag-doll dance of victory (to the strains of Mozart!) after she takes out her karate teacher with some unorthodox moves; the way she slightly tips a plate on a cafeteria table when "Bob" refuses to give her a furlough from training and the tension of her entire body seems to flow right into the seesaw motion of the plate; her terrified, hunched-shoulder invasion of an embassy while disguised as a male diplomat. A great performance.
To the role of her trainer and not-quite lover, Tcheky Karyo brings a serenity that is more frightening than any overt toughness could be.
Movies like Die Hard and The Terminator work you over. La Femme Nikita works into you. You are zapped while you watch it and then find yourself, days later, actually thinking about this ultraviolent mutation of the James Bond genre. Thrillers that provoke thought without curtailing physical excitement end up being called classic thrillers.
La Femme Nikita Gets Asylum in Beverly Hills
Kevin Allman, Los Angeles Times, 7 March 1991
The scene: Tuesday night's premiere of La Femme Nikita, which the posters called "the coolest, hippest, most stylish French thriller in ages." After a screening at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, guests traveled up Robertson Boulevard for a reception at the new club Asylum, hosted by Premiere magazine and the Samuel Goldwyn Co.
Who Was There: At the reception were Nikita director Luc Besson and star Anne Parillaud, Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Marlee Matlin and Stephen Bishop.
Dress Code: Lots of European-inspired suits and cresses -- the hip young Hollywood look. Waiters wore jackets with brass buttons and red velvet collars -- the turn-of-the-century Russian look -- while the puffy sleeves on the bartenders' shirts could have come straight from the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
Chow: Finger-food entrees -- crab puffs, smoked salmon, beef satay and desserts, which were snapped up quickly by the crowd.
Music: Ethereal new Age sounds finally gave way to a tape of tunes by Grace Jones, Talking Heads and Fine Young Cannibals.
Triumphs: The four-day-old Asylum's handsome, intimate room (maximum capacity 95), with booths, sofa areas made for conversation, a real woof-burning fireplace and, thank goodness, none of those trendy decorative walls of leather-bound books that never got read (and are usually purchased by the foot of from interior decorators).
Glitches: The roaring blaze needed a bit more ventilation, One woman came in, sniffed and snapped: "Smells like this place caught on fire!"
A Star Is Bored: Anne Parillaud showed the kind of enthusiasm for being photographed normally associated with Sean Penn. Despite the best efforts of publicists, she turned her back on cameras and made a post on sneering at photographers. Explained an embarrassed publicist: "This is the fifth city on the tour. She must be tired." Oh.
Nikita: A Thriller With a Feminine Twist
Michael Wilmington, Los Angeles Times (15 March 1991)
In Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, the title character (Anne Parillaud) looks like a fashion model who's stumbled into heroin addiction. A punk junkie hanger-on with morose eyes, spiky hair and lean, coltish limbs, she seems to inhabit a dead zone, gray, somnolent, from which she occasionally bursts out in zaps of profanity and violence.
The key to her appeal, perhaps, is that she doesn't belong. She doesn't look poor or sociopathic, but she dresses poor and kills cops. Her chic gleams through the dead-eyed grime. That makes her a fittingly mixed image for this movie, the biggest French-made French box-office hit of 1990, a film that tries to mix grit and sleekness, death and love, action and amour.
It's an imitation American high-tech urban thriller that follows the rules but subverts them, trying to twist this usually all-male genre into a feminist fabe. Like the movies it's modeled after, it's shallow, frequently silly. But there's something about the mix -- maybe something about Parillaud as the screechy, dangerous Nikita -- that may make the movie a powerful engine of wish-fulfillment.
In the beginning the picture works hard to present Nikita as startingly violent, a rebel whose only cause is pain and addiction. At the bottom, there are her junkie mates, killing and robbing without conscience. At the top, there's the secret French government and its intelligence agency, killing and robbing with even less.
Shuffling between the two worlds, Nikita is turned from free-lance murderess into a pro. The agency claims her, tames her. She even gets lessons in femininity from Jeanne Moreau as a courtesan-tutor; Moreau's lessons are like rock-video reductions of Collette's advice in Gigi. And, quickly, Nikita falls in love with two men: the icy Svengali who makes her a hit-woman (Tcheky Karyo's Bob) and the gentle, sad-eyed soul who cooks ravioli for her (Jean-Hugues Anglade as Marco). That's the opposition: Mars vs. Eros, in a world of metal and flourescent paranoia.
Besson's last movie, The Big Blue, was a gloopy Jerry Weintraub co-production, complete with sunlit oceans, scampering dolphins and an inspirational deep-diving contest. With Nikita, he's going back to the pared-down structure and near-mechanical stylization of his first two movies, Le Dernier Combat (made when he was 23) and Subway. He's also trying to show that love can triumph over death, tenderness over slaughter.
Yet his images here have the sterile, spattered quality of an aluminum wall with Day-Glo graffiti, and his violence explodes in stylized bursts, just like the usual high-tech Hollywood thriller. In fact, Besson may be the nearest French equivalent to the post-'70s "movie brats." He's no thinker and he's weak with character, he tends to ridicule or ignore literature, yet he works powerfully with the raw elements of movie-making.
He's weakest as a writer of dialogue, most self-confident in the scenes that have little or none -- or a whole movie that has none, like Le Dernier Combat. Besson's cast here is quite good; Parillaud, Karyo and Anglade are all charismatic actors who can suggest levels of meaning beneath their spare lines. But their characters tend to exist only in visual terms, emanations of the storyboard.
In La Femme Nikita there's only one performance that really fits the style: Jean Reno as Victor, the "Cleaner," a "Terminator"-style agent who sweeps in on busted missions. Victor, moving ahead remorselessly and mowing down everything in his path, makes the movie's ultimate comment on the fakery and emptiness of machismo. And Reno, a Besson regular -- he also appeared in Combat and The Big Blue -- plays him like a slightly puzzled, nearsighted robot.
La Femme Nikita (rated R for sex, language and violence) is shallow, glitzy, ultra-violent. Ironically, it may be the kind of foreign-language film that's tailor-made for people who want art and subtitles -- the chic of it, the cachet -- without the alleged pain or suffering of too many ideas or somber emotions. This is not French filmmaking at its best; it's a copy of American studio work, with a few bent wisps of feeling drifting in. Yet good mechanics can make half-good machines, and that's what Besson has done here. He hasn't trapped the soul inside, the thing he really wants. But he keeps his vehicle crashing prettily against the walls.
LA FEMME NIKITA. Anne Parillaud: Nikita.....Jean-Hugues Anglade: Marco.....Tcheky Karyo: Bob.....Jeanne Moreau: Amande
A French She-Wolf in Fox's Clothing
Diana Maychick, The (Bergen County, NJ) Record, 5 April 1991
Imagine A Clockwork Orange transported from London to Paris in the post-feminist, post-punkish 1990s. That's only a hint of the perverse delights of La Femme Nikita, an exotic thriller and the hippest new movie of the year.
Minutes into the film, Nikita, played by Anne Parillaud, a mesmerizing new star, emerges as a heroine-in-the-rough during a bungled drugstore heist. When the police arrive and open fire on the bandits. She is one of the few who survive. Sweating and snarling, this young tough is fazed by nothing, even when a speed-freak cohort blasts away at the capitalist pig pharmacist, who just happens to be his father.
After her arrest, Nikita's given a choice: Remain in jail for life or take on a new identity and the opportunity to become a French spy.
Under the tutelage of agent Bob (Tcheky Karyo), she learns self-defense, weaponry techniques, and computer technology. Developing her feminine wiles proves a more difficult task, but she's helped along by the legendary Jeanne Moreau, who gives a memorable performance as the Estee Lauder of this shady espionage cartel.
Kicking and screaming along the way, Nikita eventually learns. Nikita eventually does what she's told.
But after her three-year indoctrination with the French equivalent of the CIA, she also becomes more tradition-bound, impatiently falling in love with Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), the supermarket clerk who rings up her canned ravioli -- and later shares it with her before she ravishes him.
Director Luc Besson, who originally made his mark with the 1985 sleeper hit Subway, delivers more empathetic characters in his latest movie but hasn't gotten over his idolization of fellow French director Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva). Still, he's considerably honed Beineix's technique of spitting in the eye of intellectualism -- without reverting to cliche -- so that what he delivers is eclectic, enticing, thoroughly enjoyable, and somehow believable.
The movie works on many levels: It's a gentle love story, a mysterious thriller, a spoof of film noir. But what it does most consistently is examine the boundaries of women in society.
As a study in female bravery, La Femme Nikita outsteels Blue Steel, outsexes Theresa Russell in Impulse, and outdates all that had once been considered acceptable behavior for women in movies.
As a drug addict who is transformed Pygmalion-style into a secret government agent, Parillaud turns her character into a shadowy study of grunting fortitude. A leggy naif who doesn't mind a thousand runs in her stockings in the line of duty, she works hard on the job but seems to totally enjoy being a submissive creature at home.
Parillaud is the antithesis of every whiny, neurotic French heroine of the past two decades. What a surprise it is to witness her grope for the proper phrase (she's barely literate) while exhibiting no trouble at all blowing away anyone in her path.
La Femme Nikita falters a little toward the end when a power-hungry spy subverts one of Nikita's operations, but by this time we're so caught up with her character, the other players seem more like props for Nikita's actions. For once, a sequel would be welcome; a few more would turn Nikita into a film phenomenon -- the female James Bond.
Pretty Lethal Woman
A femme fatale brandishes a big gun
B.D. Johnson, Macleans (8 April 1991)
In the new French movie La Femme Nikita, the Pygmalion legend takes on a perverse twist: a sexy, scruffy, homicidal waif goes to a secret-agent charm school and comes out as a high-heeled government assassin. A box-office hit in France, Nikita reaffirms the ability of French directors to make preposterously stylish movies about untamed women. Ever since Roger Vadim made sex symbols of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda in the 1960s, French film-makers have been playing with the hemline between art and exploitation. Nikita is a thriller about a wild child of the streets who is turned into a gamine killing machine. In the guise of an action movie, it unfolds as a thinly veiled sexual fantasy about a seductive slave -- a punk Pretty Woman with a licence to kill.
The story opens with a bloody shootout as police intercept a gang that is robbing a pharmacy. Nikita (Anne Parillaud), a junkie desperate for a fix, crouches in a corner. As a cop comforts her, she shoots him in cold blood. The courts sentence Nikita to death. But the police fake her execution and offer her a new identity -- if she agrees to be trained as a hit woman for the state. At first, she lashes out at her instructors like a vicious animal. But her ruthless supervisor, Bob (Tcheky Karyo), breaks her rebel spirit and teaches her discipline. Meanwhile, Amande, a make-over artist played by veteran actress Jeanne Moreau, schools her in the feminine graces.
After years of incarceration, Nikita goes out into the world as a professional killer. She falls in love with Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a benign supermarket checkout clerk. She tries to keep her job a secret from him. But as he gives in to what Amande calls "feminine fragility," she finds it increasingly difficult to carry out her assignments.
Nikita's sexual politics are outrageous. Director Luc Besson, 32, makes an amusing fetish of putting huge guns in his heroine's delicate hands. Sometimes, however, the degradation gets all too literal. In one scene, sheathed in a black mini-dress, Nikita escapes a gang of killers by slithering down a restaurant garbage chute into a trash bin. Weeping, she walks home barefoot in the rain, her high heels in her hands, her stockings artfully laddered and smeared with blood.
Despite the movie's cartoon-like sexism, it is hard not to be dazzled by Besson's technique. The action scenes are riveting. The director's visual flair makes Nikita the most stylish French thriller since Diva (1981). And Parillaud performs with startling intensity -- even when Besson treats her less like an actress than a model being put through her paces. Both avenger and victim, Nikita is the latest prototype in France's search for the ultimate femme fatale.
Review - Roger Ebert
Here is the version of the "Pygmalion" legend for our own violent times -- the story of a young woman who is transformed from a killer in the streets to a government assassin.
La Femme Nikita is a smart, hard-edged, psycho-romantic thriller by the young French director Luc Besson (Subway), who follows a condemned woman as she exchanges one doom for another.
The woman is played by Anne Parillaud, who projects a feral hostility in the opening scenes, as she joins a crowd of drug-addled friends in holding up a drugstore. Cornered by the police, she takes advantage of a cop's momentary lapse of attention to grab his gun and shoot him point-blank in the face.
She has no hope for escape; she is simply so anti-social and strung-out that she doesn't care if she kills or dies.
The court sentences her to death, but then a strange thing happens. Her death is faked, and she finds herself inside a secret government program that takes people with no hope and remakes them into programmed assassins.
She is given a new identity, new values, new skills. It doesn't happen overnight. Her controller, a tough spymaster, has to tame her like a circus animal; she is so filled with anger and violence that she will bite and kick him rather than listen gratefully now that he has spared her life.
Finally, after three years, she is ready to graduate, to leave the secret training place and live an ordinary life in society until the government needs her. It is then that she meets a simple, warm, humorous man; a check-out clerk in a grocery store. She likes him at first sight, takes him home, makes him her boyfriend and begins to feel tenderness and trust, which for her are brand-new emotions. Then the inevitable government call comes. And the rest of the movie is about the ways in which she carries out her deadly assignment while still yearning to be true to the new emotion of love.
Parillaud is the right actress for this role. In the early scenes she barely seems aware she is a woman; she has lived rough in the streets with homeless drug addicts until all gentleness has been bleached from her soul. One of the movie's skills is the way it shows her slowly learning that she is a woman, and how to be a woman, and how to enjoy that.
There is a short, touching scene with Jeanne Moreau, as an instructor in the government killing school, who seats Parillaud in front of a mirror and teaches her about makeup and grooming, hair care and eyeliner, and we see the grubby street waif turn into an attractive woman.
La Femme Nikita begins with the materials of a violent thriller but transcends them with the story of the heroine's transformation. It is a surprisingly touching movie with the same kind of emotional arc as Awakenings; the character is in a trance of deprivation and poverty, neglect and drugs, until she is awakened by her violent act and its unexpected results.
But as she awakens to love and sweetness, to the touch of a man who knows nothing of her past, and to questions of trust, she also awakens to a world in which, sooner or later, she will have to pay a price for her life and freedom.
[Samuel Goldwyn Co. presents a film written and directed by Luc Besson. Photographed by Thierry Arbogast. Edited by Olivier Mauffory. Music by Eric Serra. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 117 minutes. Classified R.]
Review - Joe Bob Briggs
(23 August 1991)
Speaking of people who can't decide whether to make love or kill people, "La Femme Nikita" is the first French flick I've reviewed since "Emmanuelle V," because everyone kept writing in to me to tell me it was a drive-in movie with subtitles. I tried to tell these people that, if you put subtitles on a drive-in screen, there will very quickly be submachine-gun holes in that screen. But, fortunately for us, Vidmark Entertainment decided to put it out on video in two versions--subtitled and dubbed--so now I can report to you:
It's a combination of "The Terminator," "The Playboy Lingerie Video" and "Gidget Goes to Paris." Anne Parillaud is one of those skinny French gals who's always hanging sideways out of her clothes and shaking her head so her hair sticks out like a ragmop, and she has this tendency to fall in love with those French guys who talk like snakes and never change expressions. Are these guys bored or stoned or what? I never have figured out what the deal is with French actors.
Anyhow, she's a junkie who wears really clingy silk dresses until she gets arrested for killing a cop and thrown into the puke-your-guts-out drug-withdrawal prison and sentenced to a life term. Fortunately for her, the French government is looking for an undercover political assassin, so they make believe she's dead and start teaching her karate and how to use a computer mouse. Pretty soon she's running around in high heels and mini-skirts, blowing the brains out of ambassadors, so that all the men fall in love with her.
It's one of those "Hey! Women are people, too!" movies.
Twenty-three dead bodies. No breasts. Pencil-through-the-hand. Kneecap shattering. Two gunbattles. Biting. Kicking. Aardvarking. Ballet dancing. Kung Fu. Strait-jacket Fu. Syringe Fu. Mouse Fu. Drive-In Academy Award nominations for Anne Parillaud, as the Terminator-in-high-heels, for saying "Why ain't my mother here?" and "Mister, is this heaven here or not?" and "I'll never kiss you again"; Jeanne Moreau, who's been in every French movie since the beginning of time, as the expert on "making her a woman," for saying "Let your pleasure be your guide"; and Jean-Hugues Anglade, as the weenie boyfriend, for saying "Stop before it's too late."
Four stars by French standards. In other words . . .
Three stars. Joe Bob says check it out.
Review - Dennis Littrell
This, the French La Femme Nikita, directed by Luc Besson, is one of the strangest, most bizarre, yet psychologically truest movies ever made. The story on the surface is absurd and something you'd expect from a grade 'B' international intrigue thriller. Anne Parillaud plays Nikita, a bitter, drug-dependent, unsocialized child of the streets who is faster than a kung fu fighter and packs more punch than a Mike Tyson. She's killed some people and is given a choice between death and becoming an assassin for the French government.
This premise should lead to the usual action/adventure yarn, with lots of fists flying, guns going off, etc. And something like that does happen. However there is a second level in which Nikita becomes the embodiment of something beyond an action adventure heroine. She is coerced and managed by society. Her individuality is beaten out of her so that she can be molded into what society demands. She comes out of her training with her individuality compromised, her free and natural spirit cowed, but undefeated and alive, and she sets out to do what she has been taught to do. And she notices, somewhere along the way, amid the murder and the mayhem, that there is something better than and more important than, and closer to her soul. She finds that she prefers love to hate, tenderness to brutality. She sees herself and who she is for the first time, but it is too late. She cannot escape. Or can she?
Parillaud brings a wild animal persona tinged with beauty and unselfconscious grace to the role of Nikita. Marc Duret plays Rico, the tender man she loves, and Tcheky Karyo is her mentor, Bob, whom she also loves. Jeanne Moreau, the legend, has a small part as Amande, who teaches Nikita how to be attractive.
Now compare this to the US remake called Point of No Return (1993), starring Bridget Fonda. (Please, do not even consider the vapid TV Nikita.) What's the difference? Well, Fonda's flashier, I suppose, but nowhere is there anything like the psychological depth and raw animal magnetism found in the original. The Fonda vehicle is simply a one-dimensional action flick stylishly done in a predictable manner. Besson's Nikita is a work of art that explores the human predicament and even suggest something close to salvation.
Review - Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central
LA FEMME NIKITA
*** (out of four)
starring Anne Parillaud, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Tcheky Karyo, Jeanne
written and directed by Luc Besson
When DVD screeners of La Femme Nikita and Killing Zoe arrived simultaneously in my mailbox, I thought I had an angle for a piece: actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, a co-star in both films. I began making notes, asking myself how they fit into his oeuvre, and whether, viewed in tandem, these actioners represent career progression.
That's when I realized: what I know about the work of Jean-Hugues Anglade you could fit on the head of a pin; I've only seen him in one other performance besides those mentioned above, as Zorg in Betty Blue (a.k.a. 37°2 le matin), a movie with obvious but ultimately insignificant parallels to La Femme Nikita. So how's this sound for a thematic compromise? Nikita (its native title) and Killing Zoe each take place in France--that's as good a link between them as Anglade.
But comparing them raises far more complex issues than that; Nikita is the product of a Francophone filmmaker's western sensibilities, while Killing Zoe was directed by Roger Avary, a Stateside bohemian using his first taste of indie cred (he had collaborated with Quentin Tarantino, to the tune of an Oscar, on Pulp Fiction's screenplay) to mount what is, for all intents and purposes, an arty heist film.
Fascinatingly, the sum effects of La Femme Nikita and Killing Zoe are roughly equivalent, like mirror images, and either falls astray in act three, when Luc Besson and Avary, respectively, must finish what they started.
Nikita, in a wholly redundant turn of events, inspired Point of No Return, a mostly slavish US recreation featuring Bridget Fonda as Nikita, a junkie riot grrl converted, "Pygmalion"-style, into a gorgeous professional assassin. In the same role, non-English-speaking Anne Parillaud does it better--the heroine is of a certain Euro-comic super-babe tradition to begin with, and Parillaud carries herself more authentically conflicted than Fonda is even capable of.
Nikita, rehabilitated by an espionage-training program after shooting a cop in cold blood, is unleashed on the world with the understanding that she will occasionally carry out governmental hits. Which puts a crimp in her romantic life: she must keep new beau Marco (Anglade) in the dark about her profession, and as his feelings for her intensify, so do his suspicions that she's harbouring a thousand secrets. In one strangely poignant scene, Marco tries to engage Nikita in a conversation about love and trust while standing outside their bathroom door, and she doesn't respond for fear of breaking concentration on the sniper sight she's aiming at marks across the street.
My attention never fails to drift from Besson's first international smash when his film detours into James Bond mediocrity. As part of Nikita's training, she is subjected to a life-or-death test in which the only means of escape, a tiny window, has been sealed off by bricks, and, in executing Nikita, it's as if Besson encountered a similar dilemma. The 'domestic bliss-hired kill-domestic bliss again' structure could theoretically go on ad infinitum, thus some hard choices, concerning the botched kidnapping of a French ambassador, are imposed on Nikita in the homestretch, and rather clumsily so.
Too many characters are introduced at the last-minute, dividing our loyalties to the protagonist as we waste energy parsing the data on everybody else. And, let's face it, narrative complexity has never been Besson's strong suit; the imprecision of said late-period subplot resists audience involvement for an attention-damaging spell.
Though Nikita has difficulty getting back on its feet for the denouement, the final scene is ten times that of Point of No Return, which seems to have accidentally borrowed its closer from a different French production, Louis Malle's Damage. Likewise, Killing Zoe climaxes weakly but ends strongly; a lot of American convention screws up the second half of what was, for all intents and purposes, a very original motion picture.
Killing Zoe might be referencing the only good in Roman Polanski's Frantic during its warm-up shots, as we soar, from the car passenger's point of view, through Paris traffic. (Coincidentally, Besson would open his Leon, released the same year as Killing Zoe, in a similar manner.) Eventually, the camera turns around to face Zed (Eric Stoltz), a freshly landed American tourist. His cab driver offers the services of a prostitute, a gorgeous blonde waif named Zoe (Julie Delpy) who shows up later that evening to Zed's hotel. The two "Z"s develop a crush on one another.
Zed's old friend Eric (Anglade) eventually shows up at the hotel and bounces Zoe from the premises. Knowing Eric's mean streak, Zed does not protest, and before long he and Eric descend upon the Paris underground together. Avary is successful at cinematically approximating a drug haze, employing subtle camera tricks and weird soundtrack cues as Zed trips out on various illegal substances handed him. Then, like Tarantino's From Dusk Till Dawn, the film radically switches gears: the morning after, Zed finds himself involved in a Savings-and-Loan robbery alongside Eric's gang of Besson-esque hoodlums. Little does anybody know that Zoe is a teller there by day, and her endangerment as a hostage is crosscut with ignorant Zed's progress in cracking the code to a basement vault. That godforsaken chestnut, the bank-job that backfires, is resurrected here; Killing Zoe becomes painfully routine in its dismantling of Eric's plan. However, I couldn't quite gauge its outcome, thanks to Avary's crafty plant that Eric is HIV-positive and therefore feels invincible.
Neither Nikita nor Zoe is lacking in imagination, per se: the common flaw between them is that they meet a cul-de-sac at the halfway point, and, after much scrambling, only recover from this in their epilogues. At least they also share uniformly terrific acting, especially from the two title women. (Parillaud won a Cesar, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for Nikita.) Then there's Anglade, Nikita's angel and Zoe's devil, an actor who makes everything he's in an improbable showcase for his charisma.
Fans, prepare to be slightly dismayed by yet another home video incarnation of La Femme Nikita. MGM steps up to the plate by delivering its new DVD 16x9-enhanced, and at last the aspect ratio is an accurate 2.35:1, as you can see from the vidcap below. (Some cassette and LaserDisc versions are letterboxed at 2.0:1 and under.) The image is pretty spectacular, to boot, if a tad edgy and oversaturated. No, what really perplexes this time around is the decision to remaster only the hilarious English dub in 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
I found myself listening to the French Dolby Surround mix when people were talking and the English DD track when people were shooting. The biggest difference between them is bass, anyway: the English recording contains a whole lot more of it, which hardly matters to the dialogue scenes.
Killing Zoe owes its 16x9-enhanced, 1.85:1 letterboxed transfer to the fans, a vocal bunch when Artisan announced a full-frame release last year. I always thought the unmatted Killing Zoe looked terrible on VHS--dark, muddy, and brown. This disc shadow detail to Tom Richmond's cinematography, and Delpy's alabaster skin now stands out nicely from the strong (but controlled) colours. The Dolby Surround sound also strikes me as punchier on DVD than it did on tape, however it's not the orgy of low frequencies and sidewall imaging a modern movie rife with gunfire tends to be. Extras are sparse all around: Nikita comes with a theatrical trailer and an informative collector's booklet; Killing Zoe is an ever-so-slightly meatier package: its booklet and trailer are appended by on-screen cast/crew bios and production notes.
Review - Jeff Ulmer, Digitally Obsessed
[The MGM Studios DVD - Remastered Version]
While perhaps not as prolific as some other directors, Luc Besson's filmography contains a set of distinctive pieces which have earned him a very devoted audience. Although his subject matter wanders all over the map, from deep sea free diving (Le Grande Bleu aka The Big Blue) to historic heroines (Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc) to intergalactic mayhem (The Fifth Element) he does seem to have a fascination with assassins, as of his eight films, La Femme Nikita (aka Nikita) and Leon (aka The Professional) both center on the profession. There are many constants in Besson's work, such as composer Eric Serra's contributions to the score, and Jean Reno's appearance in most of Besson's films. For Nikita, Besson took the talents of Anne Parillaud , who plays the title role (and whom he subsequently fell in love with), and wrote a story that was the antithesis of her real life character.
After a botched robbery which ends with all of her accomplices dead and herself brought up on charges for murdering a police officer, Nikita's difficult behavior sends her into a secret program run by the government instead of prison. To the rest of the world she is dead, complete with the burial ceremonies, but in the hidden complex where she now finds herself, she has but one option—become an assassin for the government or join her public image as a dead woman. The transition is not an easy one, Nikita's strong will and defiance of authority put her at odds with the one man who can save her, Bob (Tchéky Karyo). Despite the resistance from his superiors, Bob feels Nikita will make a good weapon for their cause, and as she begins her training, her natural skill becomes apparent. What is less natural is her ability to be feminine, though as she progresses with the program under the guidance of Armande (Jeanne Moreau), she masters all that is put before her. After a true test of her abilities, she is given her freedom, conditional on performing tasks as directed from the agency when contacted.
In her new life she meets Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade), a man she eventually falls in love with, but her secret past threatens her new found happiness. When the time comes to fulfill her obligations to the agency, she has to learn to balance her covert role while maintaining the appearance of a normal woman in public.
From its opening, Nikita is a very stylish film, and Besson makes the most of his cinematographer, choosing low-angle tracking shots, fluid camera movements, and interesting perspectives for his compositions. The bleakness of the agencies headquarters is emphasized with widely composed two shots, while the tension during some of the action sequences is maintained not only with effective scripting, but by decisive editing to hold the suspense. Serra's score greatly enhances the mood of the film (as they do in Besson's other films), and while the story arc is satisfying, it is not always as expected. Look for Jean Reno as Vincent The Cleaner in a brief cameo (Reno would return as a somewhat different Cleaner in Besson's Leon).
La Femme Nikita was Americanized and remade in 1993 as Point Of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda, and also spawned a television series, but the original far outshines its successors.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: The disc features a nice, new animated menu system, with the US theatrical trailer as the only extra. It is presented with subtitles in nonanamorhic widescreen.
One issue with this release is the English dubtitles, which are taken from the English script, not translated from the original French. I would have preferred a more accurate translation, despite the fact that watching the film in English with subtitles on would be a bit strange. French and Spanish subtitles are also available. Besson is not a big fan of supplements, so their lack of presence is not that surprising.
The "collectible booklet" contains some production notes and the chapter listing.
Extras Grade: C-
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic 2.35:1 image shows the film grain reasonably well, and the image is significantly better than the previous Pioneer release. The aliasing that plagued the former DVD version is still present in this release in some places, especially in the restaurant scene, though it is greatly diminished overall. For those wondering whether to upgrade to the MGM version, from a side by side comparison this edition is vastly superior, especially on widescreen sets.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: This version contains a new 5.1 English mix with a 2.0 French surround track. As this is a French film, my first concern is the difference in that soundtrack, and this release is equal to or better than the previous Pioneer release, which had a discrete 4.0 track. The English track is also more enveloping, though I have a very hard time watching this film with the English overdubs. Eric Serra's score is well presented, with rich full range sound, with tight, deep bass. Despite the lack of a discrete French track, it still sounds wonderful.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Review - Home Theater
[The MGM Studios DVD - Remastered Version]
There are certain stories used in film that find themselves being fodder to remakes. One such story is that of La Femme Nikta. After the original French version there was a remake in America called ‘Point of No Return’. Then there was the USA Cable network’s show using the original title. The film follows a young girl that is a drug addict involved with a punk gang. They break into a drug store and kill the owners. The girl is sentenced to the death penalty. Much to her surprise, after her execution, she awakens in a stark white cell. It turns out she has been recruited by a top secret government hit squad. At first Nikita (Anne Parillaud) rebels against her control agent (Tcheky Karyo), as she is taught the finer points of murder, mayhem and deception. After several years she is set up with an apartment and gets to live a fairly normal life between assignments. During this time she falls in love with a grocery check out clerk (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and plans to marry. Soon she must face the consequences of her dual identity and balance love and death.
Anne Parillaud is, simply put, perfect for the role. She plays the part as if she is barely aware that she is a woman. She has to learn the most fundamental aspects of femininity such as makeup, manners and flirting. She also has to grow as a person capable of snuffing out a human life on order. Parillaud handles this difficult role with ease realer seen in cinema today. She is successful in portraying both the woman and the hit man (er, hit person) with equal talent. The rest of the cast pales in comparison to her. Even Karyo as her guide, mentor and captor does not hold a candle to Parillaud’s abilities in this film.
The director, Luc Besson hold true to his cinematic style. He prefers slightly built young women as his leads. Although they have almost boyish figures his heroines have more strength than any man does in the film. This is seen not only in Nikta but also Leon and the 5th Element. Besson also likes to use very claustrophobic sets, narrow European streets, closely walled hallways and corridors. As the main character is closed in emotionally it is reflected on the set. Besson also plays with lighting, always driving the action forward without sacrificing the mood.
This is the second DVD to be released of this movie. The first was not the best job possible. The English soundtrack was only 2.0 and the French original audio was 4.0. Here the audio track has been remastered to 5.1. Typical of this kind of remastering the rear channels do suffer a bit. The sub woofer is not put to the fullest use at all. The video is excellent and clear. If you are a Besson fan you will have to get this one. If you enjoy a good story with action, romance and drama you should also invest in this classic film.