Better late than never! I finally fished this oldie out of my dad’s rather expansive DVD collection. I’d been meaning to watch it for years, since this is basically the movie that helped put Luc Besson on the map.
The gist of the story is that Nikita used to be a strung-out French junkie and ended up killing a cop. Sentenced to die, she’s saved by an ambiguous government agency that sees potential in her as an agent, which is kind of hilarious since at times, Nikita makes Isabelle Adjani look placid. (Coincidentally, Adjani has also been directed by Besson!) Over several years, she’s eventually trained to be quite the femme fatale, and is set free to kill targets that the agency orders her to. While setting up a new identity for herself, she falls in love with a normal man and must lead a double life that starts to tear her apart on the inside.
Overall, I have to say it must’ve been extremely impressive at the time. In some ways, it still is. The best thing about the movie is its style. This is a movie with a unique visual style that is still striking to this day. The drug store shootout in the beginning is fantastic and so, so 80s (even though it came out in 1990) with its blues and greens. James Cameron would be jealous. Nikita, of course, looks fabulous even in her drugged-out mode, striking a heroin-chic pose. When she gets confined to her room at the agency, she takes it upon herself to redecorate, giving it an impressive graffiti-punk makeover. The movie even does well visually when Nikita cleans up, tackling glamour quite admirably. It all looks a bit dated now, but I’m sure back then this was cutting edge stuff.
The story has some value beyond its badass premise, too. There’s genuine pathos to be had in Nikita’s double-life situation. The actress playing Nikita seems to do a range of emotions quite well. When the nearly feral Nikita discovers that she needs to shape up in her training or face execution, or can’t seem to manage a smile even when ordered to, it’s easy to see why she was picked. (And easy to see why Luc Besson went on to do some collaborations with Milla Jovovich. They are basically the same woman.)
The story also seems to have some thematic weight. The best example of it, to me, is when Nikita is told her exit from an assassination mission is to be found in the men’s restroom, but when she goes there, she finds the exit bricked up. When she confronts her trainer about how the exit was closed off, he merely replies, “Of course it was.” A stab at gender politics? I hope so, otherwise I have way too much time on my hands.
But other parts of the movie are not so good. Let me just put it this way: Besson stinks at character development. I have no idea what sort of magical pill he took during the filming of Leon the Professional to have that movie come out so nuanced, but none of it is to be found here. Nikita’s abrupt change from wild child to slinky spy kitten is… well… abrupt. We’re given no time to adjust to it. We just get some weak exposition that it’s three years later and that’s that. I mean, they could practically be different characters since I don’t see much of anything connecting the two Nikitas. Is that supposed to be the point? That Nikita’s split into two people? I have no idea. All I know is that there HAD to be some gold to mine in the painful transition, but instead we get a time jump that says to me that Besson didn’t think he was up to it (or really had no patience for it). The same skipping happens later when Nikita seduces a grocer for a one-night fling and all of a sudden they’re truly, madly in love and it makes no sense.
What really sucks about them truncating the training portion of the movie is that everything that comes after it pales in comparison. Nikita’s love life just isn’t as interesting. Neither is her spy life, really. The scene that brings out the best in the two of them occurs when Nikita thinks she’s been given a sexy vacation alone with her boyfriend, but instead she’s ordered to snipe a target from the bathroom window. All the while, her man is begging her to let him know what’s going on with her and it’s the first true moment where we can see what toll the two sides of her are taking on her emotionally. The rest of it just doesn’t have the same resonance as that. The movie could’ve ended at that scene and I would’ve been impressed. But no, it keeps going.
And that’s a shame, because the climax is ridiculous and confusing. Throughout the entire movie, Nikita’s been guiltlessly killing people and it’s never really been an issue. But all of a sudden a mission goes wrong and Jean Reno is brought in as a “cleaner.” She freaks out when he starts killing guards and pouring acid on her target. Um, what? Weren’t you a frigging professional Nikita? Now you’re whining about him killing people like a baby. This is basically how the last twenty minutes go:
[Jean Reno kills people]
Nikita: I HAVE SUCH A PROBLEM WITH YOU KILLING PEOPLE EVEN THOUGH I’VE BEEN KILLING PEOPLE THE ENTIRE MOVIE WAH WAH WAH
[Jean Reno kills people]
Nikita: I CAN’T TAKE IT, JUST CALM DOWN AND STOP KILLING PEOPLE WAH WAH WAH
[Jean Reno kills more people then dies]
Nikita: I DON’T WANNA BE AN ASSASSIN ANYMORE WAH WAH WAH
Ugh. It made no sense for her character. Yeah, I can see her wanting out of the lifestyle, but the sudden show of disgust about killing people is ridiculously unrealistic. It’s easily the worst thing about the entire movie. There’s other flaws, such as splotches of comedy in the first half that are at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie. Nikita beats up her karate instructor, then starts dancing (badly) to some classical music. She also gives her computer instructor a (live) mouse as a joke, then starts singing a grating song. If this movie was meant to be a goofy popcorn flick like his later The Fifth Element, I could forgive this as a lovable quirk, but alas. This movie is supposed to be more somber than that. As somber as a movie with ridiculous hats can be.
So La Femme Nikita ends up being a pretty uneven affair. Yeah, it’s a pleasure to look at and a template for lots of other assassin movies to follow, but it’s also an annoying disappointment that leaves you scratching your head at characters’ actions. Besson is much better in Leon the Professional. Nikita? You’re terminated.