MGM // 1990 // 117 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // July 15th, 2003
"Rule one: the first bullet's not for you." -- "Uncle Bob" (Tchéky Karyo)
The most influential European action film of the 1990s -- perhaps of any decade -- Luc Besson's Nikita (marketed in the U.S. as La Femme Nikita) spawned a creditable American remake (John Badham's 1993 Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda), a popular USA Network cable series (La Femme Nikita, this time with Australian Peta Wilson in the title role), and an endless slew of imitators and knockoffs, from Entrapment to the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider flicks to such TV series as Dark Angel and Alias. Even the heroines of the three most recent James Bond spectaculars, especially Halle Berry's Jinx in Die Another Day, owe a doff of their collective hat to Nikita.
Released twice previously on DVD -- a trouble-plagued prehistoric transfer from Trimark/Pioneer way back in 1997, then an MGM edition in 2000 that corrected some of the Trimark version's deficiencies and added a Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub track -- La Femme Nikita finally gets its just due on a fine (if supplement-sparse) Special Edition from MGM.
A strung-out drug addict calling herself Nikita (Anne Parillaud, Innocent Blood, The Man in the Iron Mask) lands on Death Row after killing a police officer during a pharmacy heist gone horribly awry. Following the lethal injection, Nikita awakens, not in heaven or hell, but in the custody of a man who identifies himself as "Uncle Bob" (Tchéky Karyo, Bad Boys, Kiss of the Dragon). Bob is an agent of a top-secret department of the French government, who offers the already murderously inclined street punk an opportunity to do that for which she has demonstrated a certain talent -- terminating people with extreme prejudice, and without apparent remorse -- at the service of her homeland. With few options in life and no real will to continue living it, Nikita grudgingly accepts.
Turning a trigger-happy sow's ear into a smooth and deadly silk purse is, however, no easy task. Nikita is nigh onto uncontrollable, as Bob and his fellow instructors soon discover. Only with the calculating guidance of a mysterious older woman named Amande (Jeanne Moreau, Jules and Jim, Chimes at Midnight), and three years of patient effort (spanned in a few frames of film), is the freshly minted wetwork specialist ready to be unleashed on the outside world. Meanwhile, surprising even himself, Bob realizes he has more than merely paternal feelings for his unconventionally comely protégé.
Returned to normal life with a new perspective and purpose, Nikita meets and begins a romantic relationship with Marco, a shy grocery clerk (Jean-Hugues Anglade, Killing Zoe), while awaiting her first assignment from "Uncle Bob." That assignment leads to another, and another, and before long Nikita begins asking herself two questions most rational people would have posed years sooner:
Is bumping people off for The Powers That Be any way to spend the rest of my life? And if not, then what do I do?
Although I'd seen La Femme Nikita several times before this Special Edition arrived on my desk, something occurred to me on this viewing that I'd not noticed before: Nikita is a distaff take on Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy's The Destroyerseries of neo-pulp novels, familiar to action film fans as the basis of the 1980s cult classic Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins... In both venues, the diamond-in-the-rough protagonist is plucked from the streets (in The Destroyer / Remo Williams, the hero-to-be is a corrupt, amoral police officer, not a junkie) by a shadowy government operative (Harold W. Smith, played in Remo by the ubiquitous Wilford Brimley, is The Destroyer's "Uncle Bob"), subjected to a faked death, changed identity, and intense reformative training by an eccentric older mentor (Jeanne Moreau's Amande in Nikita; the Korean martial artist Chiun in The Destroyer -- played by Joel Grey in Remo). And of course, The Destroyer/Remo is ultimately just a violent redressing of the Pygmalion legend -- think My Fair Lady, with assassins instead of singers.
Familiar though the story synopsis may appear, there's no doubting the power and artistry with which director Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) fashions this premise into a challenging, no-holds-barred thriller. In his typically Francocentric way, Besson revels in quirky camera work and ponderous dialogue, but he makes it all flow together so skillfully that only the most xenophobic American film fan could fail to embrace it. Besson is the kind of filmmaker who can go overboard on style at the expense of coherent substance (as in The Messenger, his retelling of the story of Joan of Arc), but doesn't here -- his energetic, muscular direction fits perfectly with this material. Like a springloaded toy car, Besson winds Nikita up and lets it fly, and once it starts going -- right from the opening credits -- it wavers only briefly in spots.
Top-notch talent in the lead role helps. Anne Parillaud does marvelous work playing a sociopath who, in less adept hands, could very easily remain off-putting and unsympathetic for the entire film. After all, the first three concrete actions we witness Nikita taking are (1) ventilating a policeman's skull with a handgun at point-blank range; (2) impaling a detective's hand with a pencil; and (3) headbutting a bailiff at her murder trial. Yet despite Nikita's violent animus, Parillaud parts the curtain of her mind just enough that we can see a genuine, vulnerable human being, damaged by drug abuse and heaven knows what else to the point that her emotional self has retreated into a nasty, petulant immaturity. A brilliant physical actress, Parillaud inhabits this character so completely that her every glance and twitch conveys more about Nikita's inner maelstrom than dialogue ever could.
We've seen Tchéky Karyo as a villain so often in recent years that his subtle, almost tender rendering of the spymaster who masks his true feelings for his erratic pupil -- in part, I believe, because he's a little afraid of her -- is a revelation. Jean-Hugues Anglade and Besson favorite Jean Reno shine in key roles as Nikita's nebbishy fiancé and a cool master assassin, respectively. And Jeanne Moreau fairly glows in her too-infrequent moments on camera -- Orson Welles considered Moreau the finest actress of her generation, and she does so much with so little here that we suspect the Great One might not have been far wrong.
Besson's vision gets focused with ratcheted tension through the camera of his longtime cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast. Arbogast, whose deft and distinctive pictures were about the only things worthwhile in Brian De Palma's recent stinker, Femme Fatale -- yet another Nikita ripoff -- is at the top of his game here. His technique goes counter in many ways to what an American DP would do given a similar urban thriller, rarely relying on flash for flash's sake, but savoring the texture of such European cities as Paris and Venice with an almost painterly eye. Composer Eric Serra, another perennial Besson collaborator, serves up a tight, edgy score, lending sonic electricity to Arbogast's rich visual atmosphere.
As noted above, this MGM Special Edition represents the third Region 1 DVD appearance of La Femme Nikita. Thankfully, the new anamorphic transfer shows a marked improvement over the two earlier affairs, enough of an improvement that owners of the previous versions -- especially those still holding on to the miserable, non-anamorphic Trimark release -- will be well advised to invest in the double-dip. The upgrade will gain you sharper contrast, richer color (especially in the area of blacks and shadows), and greater overall clarity.
That's not to say the new transfer is perfect, mind you. It's far from that -- indeed, it's far from the level of quality aficionados have come to expect at this stage of the DVD revolution. Digital chatter still abounds as in the prior MGM version, with breakup, color bleed, and shimmer apparent in practically every scene. There's also a disappointing amount of visible grain and print damage on display. All of these defects, though still far more present than they should be, are noticeably toned down from the earlier discs. The same can't be said of the eye-straining edge enhancement employed here by MGM, which will have viewers scrambling for the Excedrin by the end of the film's first hour.
On the positive tip, both the original French soundtrack and the English dub are now presented in a rollicking Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that rattles the house. (MGM's 2000 release included a 5.1 English track, but only a stereo separation of the French.) Ample, thunderous bass and an active surround pattern afford exciting listening. Purists will be delighted to learn that, unlike the previous MGM disc, the Special Edition apparently bases its English subtitles on a direct translation of the original dialogue rather than on the looser paraphrase of the English audio track. (The Judge neither speaks nor understands French, but he's bright enough to switch on the English audio and subtitles simultaneously, and to observe that they don't match in the slightest. With the French and Spanish subtitles, you're on your own.)
MGM's touting of this new DVD as a "Special Edition" is tantamount to a male Family Feud contestant introducing his "lovely wife." Maybe she is and maybe she isn't, and the audience will judge for themselves, but what else is the poor devil going to say? After two barebones go-arounds, maybe this relatively Spartan concoction isn't really "special," but how else is the studio going to convince early adopters to trade up, other than by branding the new arrival as an SE?
The "specialness," such as it is, pertains to a slim handful of supplementary content MGM added for the occasion. Apparently, the occasion wasn't special enough to convince Luc Besson to participate. The director is conspicuous by his absence throughout the menu of extras. (Besson is the opposite of the proverbial elephant in the living room: everyone talks about him, but no one sees him.)
First up is a brief (4:45) featurette entitled The Sound of Nikita, in which music master Eric Serra describes his development of the film's pulse-pounding score, while clips from the film roll by. Stars Anne Parillaud and Tchéky Karyo pop in briefly to kibitz.
Featurette Number Two is the somewhat more substantial Revealed: The Making of La Femme Nikita. This 20-minute offering doesn't deliver much beyond the average Access: Hollywood sort of public relations piffle, but it's sleekly put together, intercutting film clips with interviews with Parillaud, Karyo, and co-stars Jean Reno and Jean-Hugues Anglade, along with a couple of key crew members (Parillaud, Karyo, and Reno give their comments in English, the others in subtitled French). Parillaud's reminiscences prove the most interesting, including her revelation that she despised doing the martial arts sequences ("violent, painful, scary") but found herself getting "too much into" the gunplay. All of the film clips are preserved in their original aspect ratio and language (with English subtitles, though not the same subs that accompany the main feature -- I presume these are the transliterations from the English audio dub found on MGM's previous DVD). The interviews are beautifully shot (Parillaud looks immeasurably more stunning 13 years later than she does anywhere in the movie) in full frame.
An interactive feature entitled Programming Nikita amounts to a senseless frittering away of disc memory: three extremely short (30 seconds each) snippets from the film (which you've already watched) introduced by either Parillaud or Karyo (reprising comments you already heard in the Making of... featurette). Let your preteen child or sibling play with the remote for five seconds, and they'll turn up a fourth clip, barely hidden as an "Easter egg."
The remaining "specials" in this not-all-that-terribly Special Edition include a poster gallery (it is really appropriate to call it a "gallery" if it only includes two posters? that's like calling two baseball cards a "collection"), the film's theatrical trailer, previews for three other MGM Special Edition DVDs (which, in the studio's defense, actually are special: Die Another Day: SE, The Terminator: SE, and Platoon: SE), and two pages of cover art from other MGM releases.
Viewers familiar only with the American Nikita remake Point of No Return, or with the La Femme Nikita cable TV series, may be curious how the original compares. Point of No Return is, with the exception of its sunnier Hollywood-style ending, almost a shot-for-shot reproduction of the Besson film, albeit in English with predominantly American actors. Bridget Fonda, an actress I may be alone among film critics in admiring when she's appropriately cast, offers a slightly more accessible and sympathetic character, although one lacking some of the emotional complexity of Anne Parillaud's Nikita. John Badham's film is by its very nature derivative, but not without merit. It's competent and entertaining -- a reasonable substitute for the subtitle-phobic frequenter of Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, but it suffers by comparison with the nervous energy and razor's-edge rawness of the original. If you've seen Nikita, Point of No Return becomes superfluous.
The teleseries La Femme Nikita is another kettle of fish. Like the TV version of M*A S*H, it's distant enough from the movie in both flavor and feel that one need not be familiar with one to appreciate the other. The gamine, punkish Parillaud may shock those accustomed to the blonde supermodel appeal of Peta Wilson, but on the other hand, a little shock now and then is good for the circulation.
The bottom line is that Nikita is worthwhile for its own sake. Anyone who enjoys a good espionage thriller -- including those that happen to be tangentially related -- owes it to himself or herself to go right to the source.
The true measure of La Femme Nikita can be gauged by the number of filmmakers who have tried to duplicate it over the past decade, without ever approaching, much less eclipsing, Besson's masterpiece. Nikita isn't a perfect thriller -- in some ways it's too cagey about what it's trying to accomplish, and it's not quite as smart about feminism as Besson would have us believe -- but it leaves the overwhelming majority of Hollywood's disposable summer blockbluster trash gasping in its wake.
If you haven't seen Nikita, hie thee to your local video outlet and grab this Special Edition. If you've got one of its skunky previous DVD editions, it's time to turn that turkey into a Christmas tree ornament and take a step up in quality. This treatment still isn't everything this influential film warrants, but at this stage, it's the best we're likely to get.
For services rendered to the realm, Nikita is hereby absolved of all past crimes and awarded a full pardon. She's free to go.
With that, we're adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Rankins; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, dubbed)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French, original language)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Featurette: Revealed: The Making of La Femme Nikita
* Featurette: The Sound of Nikita
* Interactive Feature: Programming Nikita
* Poster Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailers
* DVD Cover Art Gallery