Case Number 03241

LA FEMME NIKITA: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON

Warner Bros. // 1997 // 978 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 1st, 2003

The Charge

Josephine.

Opening Statement

Set against the improbable backdrop of high-stakes terrorism and covert operations, La Femme Nikita is the story of one woman's eternal struggle to stay alive and sane, as well as look impossibly beautiful while doing it. The 22 episode first season of La Femme Nikita bows on DVD in fine form with a dash of extra content.

Facts of the Case

Cribbing from the very helpful booklet:

"Nikita"
Nikita says goodbye to her past and plunges into a new world of training and danger when forced to join the secret anti-terrorist group Section One.

"Friend"
A childhood friend who contacts Nikita suddenly finds her life in great peril. An even greater peril awaits Nikita as she tries to protect her friend!

"Simone"
Nikita's infiltration of a terrorist cell's subterranean ops center leads to the astonishing discovery of a captive woman long thought to be dead -- Michael's wife!

"Charity"
Philanthropist Alec Chandler (Simon MacCorkindale) puts his money where his heart is: he helps rescue homeless children from the streets. Yet, the more Nikita learns from him, the closer she gets to revealing Chandler's dark secret.

"Mother"
Nikita poses as the long-lost daughter of a female terrorist whose posh lifestyle stands to grow more luxurious when she finds a buyer for a stolen nuclear device.

"Love"
Nikita and Michael (Roy Dupuis) pose as a hip and somewhat kinky married couple in order to work on the inside of a group bent on unleashing a deadly nerve gas.

"Treason"
Her probationary status is over, but that only mires Nikita deeper in the workings of Section. Yet one thing about Nikita may never change: her willingness to sidestep regulations in order to help the innocent.

"Escape"
Someone has been watching Nikita -- someone who now comes forward and offers a foolproof way of slipping free of Section's grasp. Is it the opportunity Nikita has sought? Or is it a covert test of her loyalty?

"Gray"
Someone has hacked into Section's computer and stolen the personnel file. The thief may have planted the microdisc with the file on an unsuspecting civilian -- a man that Nikita must now romance!

"Choice"
Is there room for romance in Nikita's dangerous life? Her relationship with an architect compromises her effectiveness...and could put her lover in the crosshairs of rival agents and Section One alike.

"Rescue"
Mission accomplished -- but the cost is high when Michael is injured and left behind after a raid on a chemical weapons plant. Rescuing Michael is the new mission, and that leads to the revelation of a troubling Section secret.

"Innocent"
Terrorists sneak a nuclear device into the country, and Section finds that its only hope of locating it rests on a childlike pizza deliveryman (Maury Chaykin) who witnessed vital clues.

"Recruit"
It's not a pass/fail program that Section newcomers face. It's do/die. Nikita empathizes with their plight, but there is no room for compassion when she's asked to decide the fate of a new recruit.

"Gambit"
Extreme interrogation techniques have no effect on a terrorist (Harris Yulin) who knows the whereabouts of a cache of nuclear weapons material...but Section One may yet have ploys that no terrorist would suspect.

"Obsessed"
To obtain a book containing high-level secrets about nations allied with Section One, Michael woos the vulnerable wife of a hitman who knows where the book is hidden.

"Noise"
A brush with death during a mission rattles the emotions of Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson), Section One's top whiz kid, putting him at risk of being cancelled.

"War"
Torture Nikita and she won't crack. Torture Michael and she's likely to let her feelings for him get in the way. Section One's nemesis, Red Cell, is committed to forcing them to reveal the location of Section's command center.

"Missing"
In exchange for her freedom, Nikita agrees to protect one of the targets of a Section One sting -- a target that happens to be the son of Section's leader, Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer).

"Voices"
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially if the knowledge is about Section One. A police detective's investigation of a serial rapist/murderer inadvertently puts him too much in the way and too much in the know.

"Brainwash"
Section One needs a volunteer, and Nikita is the one volunteered. She's subjected to a mind-control machine that's come into the organization's possession...and secretly falls under the machine's deadly sway.

"Verdict"
A band of insurgents is bent on becoming judge, jury, and executioner when it overruns the inaugural ball of a strife-torn nation's new leader and puts him on trial. Nikita, held as one of the hostages, comes to his defense.

"Mercy"
Total obedience. That's what is expected of Nikita. So, when she refuses to obey an order to kill a young inventor, Section One sends her on a suicide mission.

The Evidence

Leading ladies who kick ass are not a recent invention by any means, but even a casual observer might notice their increased popularity in recent years. Not only are their numbers on the rise, but the modern action heroine is far stronger in mental toughness, physical capability, and forthright sexuality. In other words, they wreak havoc equally well with their male counterparts but without sublimating their distinctively feminine qualities or sacrificing their physical credibility.

Indeed, that seems to be part of their popular charm -- women get strong, capable role models, and men get to enjoy the same mayhem as in traditional "guy flicks" but with an additional erotic touch. The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and Charlie's Angels of the 1970s have given way to Xena, Lara Croft, Sarah Pezzini, and Sydney Bristow, among others. As the Virginia Slims ads used to say, you've come a long way, baby! Leading the charge near the front of this trend was a modestly budgeted syndicated show from Canada, La Femme Nikita.

La Femme Nikita first came to life on the small screen in 1997, closely following in the wake of the debut of Xena: Warrior Princess in 1995. Though drawing upon the source material of Luc Besson's acclaimed film Nikita in 1990 and the poorly received remake Point of No Return in 1993, the television show had the ability to strike off on its own and develop its own unique style in picture, sound, and storytelling.

On the surface, the look and style of La Femme Nikita is as deliberate as it is coolly aesthetic. The creators describe the artistic style of La Femme Nikita as "ten minutes into the future," where production designer Rocco Matteo gives the sets an advanced, technological air of sophistication but with a cold style that mirrors the remorseless nature of Section One. I had not quite noticed until the commentary for Nikita that Section is a true paperless office. Memos, policies, briefings, tactical plans, every last little administrative trivia is created, viewed, and transferred electronically with nary a murdered tree in sight. A small, but consistently applied point, this is the sort of deliberate touch that makes La Femme Nikita stand out.

In keeping with the cool style of Section One aesthetic (and in light of the production limitations), the locations are predominantly North American or European, and frequently urban or industrial. (After all, Toronto, Canada can hardly stand in for a sleepy siesta town in a sweltering tropical climate, now can it?)

Perhaps even faster than the look, the sound of La Femme Nikita slips into your mind. Avoiding mainstream music in favor of an alternative, edgy, and just plain what the hell is that? sound, this is the sort of music that fits in well in the clubs, raves, and other suitably unusual locations that are La Femme Nikita's forte. The main theme by Mark Snow (The X-Files) and a few well-known groups (including Depeche Mode and Enigma) are recognizable, but you should appreciate them all, including the original contributions from composer Sean Callery (24). Outside of La Femme Nikita, I would not listen to much of it, but inside La Femme Nikita, it rocks.

The backdrop of La Femme Nikita is a serious, far from mundane amalgam of terrorism and espionage stories from history and fiction. At the time, as executive consultant Joel Surnow (24 co-creator) mentions in his "Mercy" commentary, the stories of threatened terrorism by all sorts of vastly destructive means (explosive, biological, chemical, and nuclear) seemed far more like distant fantasy than they do in our post-9/11 era. Indeed, the idea of cold-hearted, ruthless pragmatists and utilitarians running an ultra-covert anti-terrorist agency with expendable, retrained criminals as agents seems somewhat less fantastic than it seemed just a few years ago. (Then again, hard-left certified nutjobs like Michael Moore might think we arrived there some years ago.)

However, the heart of La Femme Nikita is the struggle of Nikita (code name "Josephine") to retain her humanity against the remorseless omnipresent control of Section One. Though the series broadened as it went on to flesh out the supporting characters with dual-plot episodes, in the first season La Femme Nikita focused almost entirely upon Nikita's daily struggle, placing great demands upon Peta Wilson (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). An unknown then and only slightly more familiar now, Peta Wilson is plainly blessed with athletic blond beauty, credible physical ability, and emotional range. One moment coldly mowing down terrorists, and the next wracked with painful conscience at her deeds, Peta Wilson handles the extremes in her character with acting aplomb.

Though the first season does not give them much of an opportunity to flesh out their roles, the supporting cast shows signs of the appeal that later flourished. Eugene Robert Glazier (24, New Blood) and Alberta Watson (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hackers) spark well with each other and stand in cold, logical opposition to the subversive/lover duo of Nikita and Michael. I might even venture to say they are a more credible couple than their younger counterparts!

Matthew Ferguson has the necessary look and techno-poise down pat, but only gets one chance to really strut his stuff ("Noise"). Don Francks (Finian's Rainbow, Inspector Gadget) is not so lucky. Originally written as a leering, dirty old man sort for the first few episodes, the writers veered his character off into a more wise uncle territory, but never gave Francks more than a moment to let loose his charm. Still, we can be doubly thankful, as later seasons finally let Francks give Walter a full life and the role was steered away from Woody Allen territory before it got too creepy. On the guest star front, top-notch character actor Maury Chaykin (Nero Wolfe, Dances With Wolves, WarGames) turns in a compelling, touching performance in "Innocent." Of all the episodes in the first season, that just may be my favorite thanks to Mr. Chaykin. On second thought, Harris Yulin's (Clear and Present Danger) nicely sinister turn in "Gambit" is worthy of consideration as well.

The full-frame video transfer is fairly good. The picture is medium-soft and slightly fuzzy/grainy, though quite clean and free of defects. A scattering of scenes are strongly grainy and in some night scenes, the details tend to get lost in the darkness. Flesh tones are accurate and the colors, as one would hope from such a stylish show, are consistently solid and well saturated.

What a pity that La Femme Nikita did not have the budget for a rock 'em sock 'em 5.1 sound mix! Between the kick-ass soundtrack and action, this show would take full advantage. However, we must settle for a competent Dolby Surround track. The front soundstage is clear and wide, though not terribly active, with good subwoofer support and even some fill from the rear surrounds. The deep resonance of the opening logo in each episode always brings a smile!

The extras are a modest package. The 12-minute making-of featurette is an appetizer, setting up the basics of La Femme Nikita but only whetting your appetite for details. The commentaries for "Nikita" (executive consultant Joel Surnow, creative consultant Robert Cochran, and director Jon Cassar) and "Mercy" (Joel Surnow) are informative and candid in evaluating the genesis and early development of La Femme Nikita. One gem from Surnow was admitting that most of the audience didn't pay attention to the heavy expository briefings that Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer) was forced to give -- they just wanted to see Niktia get a gun and go to town. Indeed! The "cancelled" scenes (totaling about 12 minutes) have optional commentary (again by Joel Surnow) and are interesting more for the context from the commentaries than the substance of the scenes themselves. The name is a nice touch -- whoever thought that up should get a cookie.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I like La Femme Nikita. I like La Femme Nikita a whole lot. With that in mind, I have to admit that Roy Dupuis seems to owe his prowess as Michael to Botox injections. To be fair, his role does call for an enigmatically impassive man, but all the time? Whether the moment calls for Michael to be a cold killer, romantic man, or emotionally torn, his typical flat affect varies by only a few degrees. I have not seen him in any other roles, so I cannot say whether this is typical of his acting abilities, but I hope not. On the positive side, Roy plays Michael with such mystery that he always keeps the audience (and Nikita) guessing. He may let his guard slip for a brief moment, but even Nikita (and the audience) can't be sure he's not fooling.

Closing Statement

The stories are deadly serious, but this is one television show that knows when not to take itself too seriously. La Femme Nikita looks good and sounds fine, with sober writing balancing action, sensuality, and drama. If La Femme Nikita is your bag, baby, then just wait for the Alias box sets coming soon to a DVD retailer near you!

The Verdict

The court orders that Warner proceed to release the remaining seasons of La Femme Nikita forthwith! It is so ordered.

Review content copyright © 2003 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 85
Audio: 88
Extras: 75
Acting: 86
Story: 86
Judgment: 89

Perp Profile
Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)

Subtitles:
* English
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 978 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Cancelled Scenes
* Crew Commentaries
* Making-of Featurette

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0118379/combined

* La Femme Nikita Forever
http://lfnforever.tripod.com/