La Femme Nikita (1991)
La Femme Nikita (1991)

Genre: Action and Spy Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: March 8th, 1991 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Luc Besson Actors: Anne Parillaud, Tcheky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Jeanne Moreau, Jean Reno, Marc Duret

 


 

F

our anarchic punks break into a store looking for drugs, with a fifth dragged inside unconscious. One of them, Antoine, is the son of the shop’s owner, which creates just enough of a diversion when a confrontation occurs. Unfortunately for leader Rico (Marc Duret) and his mindless cronies Coyotte and Zap, the police arrive on the scene incredibly quickly, turning the place into an absolute bloodbath. Teenager Nikita (Anne Parillaud) doesn’t participate in the shootout, as she’s in a drug-addled haze, but she nevertheless shoots an officer in the head as the authorities survey the aftermath.

Acting like a rabid animal, Nikita is sentenced to life imprisonment for her part in the crimes. She’s initially an unsympathetic character, though eventually, when she begs to see her mother, it becomes apparent that her wayward attitude is largely attributable to a poor upbringing – or an absence of an emotional support system. She’s given another chance, however, through a secretive government agent, Bob (Tcheky Karyo), who arranges her “death” so that she can begin again fresh with a new identity. She’s trained in computers, weapons, martial arts, and more, to serve her country in top secret missions – a multi-year transformation that can’t initially alter her rebellious nature and her hatred of authority figures.

Chirpy music and comical acts of defiance pepper the beginning stages of Nikita’s total makeover, turning her into a mature woman – and a valuable tool for espionage. The mischievous disobedience transitions into light romance – and then into horror, as Nikita’s humanity is sacrificed for just another method of causing death and destruction. Her escape from a lifetime of incarceration is traded for the harsh reality of unfeeling, governmental usefulness; her life will never again be her own.

Strangely, she’s not the hard-hearted, emotionless robot of so many professional assassin movies. Instead, she retains a playfulness and a romantic idealism that directly conflicts with her assignments (tending to involve cold-blooded murder). In a sequence in which she goes to the grocery store – following around a fellow patron to copy, suggesting this is the first time in her life she’s shopped for herself – she’s practically childlike. And later, when she asks out the friendly cashier (Jean-Hugues Anglade as Marco) for an intimate dinner at her new place, it’s as if she wasn’t trained on how to properly interact with other human beings. One would think that learning how to fit in should be the very first lesson.

“Try to work magic, not havoc.” Perhaps stranger still, when her code name (Josephine) is spoken, Nikita manages to snap back into secret agent mode – though she’s rarely shown to be the exceedingly competent killer she’s been molded to be. She continues to exhibit a certain unpreparedness, as if she easily forgets the reason for her existence (and her liberation). Plus, her successes occasionally seem accidental. It’s somewhat sloppy for Nikita to have so much freedom to build a life outside her work, creating the need for constant secrecy; it’s as if the film’s main point is to examine an agent’s ability to have normal relationships while still carrying out harrowing tasks of surveillance, intelligence gathering, and covert executions.

Toward the end, when a mission goes terribly wrong, the focus shifts away from romance and back to thrills, though they still possess an irritating quality – again demonstrating a lack of preparation, or merely the agents’ inabilities to maintain their cool. There’s a realism here, in Bob’s delusions of Nikita’s potential, and in the panicky reactions of nearly all of her associates, which is refreshing yet unconvincing. Jean Reno steals a bit of the show as Victor the cleaner, a hitman who clearly became the inspiration for Leon in “The Professional,” but it’s not enough to redeem the problems of the character designs, the shortcomings of the plot (including the pacing), and the open-ended conclusion (though this is arguably a satisfying way to bring Nikita’s tale to a close). Nevertheless, Luc Besson’s script and direction would prove inspirational to subsequent movies, crafting a blueprint for a number of likeminded spy yarns (those hoping to detail top-secret spooks with a touch of humanity, as opposed to stoic, expressionless enforcers), including several of his own following, superior pieces.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10