When drug-addicted teen Nikita (Anne Parillaud) shoots a cop in a robbery gone wrong, her sentence is death. But behind prison walls, she is given a secret ultimatum: harness her penchant for violence, or face her executioner. After three years of martial arts, weapons and etiquette training, Nikita is reborn as Josephine, a sexy, sophisticated assassin, released back into normal society with instructions to build a cover life for her killer job. When she meets Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), it seems the murderous instinct of her teenage years may be behind her, but can she reconcile her new-found feelings with her deadly profession?
Besson’s international break-through hit from 1990 seems less gimmicky than his first three features; the crazy, wacky sense of humour is toned down and the visual style is elegant, bolder and stronger. Nikita, all about second chances and the redemptive power of love, has Besson restraining his tendency to go over the top on every level all of the time and concentrate on the performances, which here, are uniformly excellent. Nikita is Pygmalion for the 'Heavy Metal’ crowd; but it’s a real heart grabber mostly because its big emotions seemed earned, rather than affected.
Still, the plot is pure comic book; a street 'girl’ called Nikita (played by the gorgeous Anne Parillaud), after being served a life sentence for murder, is selected by an obscure French intel agency to be trained as an assassin. A junkie psychotic with a quirky affection for bad taste humour, Nikita proves a hard sell for her minder Bob (the superb Tcheky Karyo). But in the hands of a lovely stylist, played by the legendary Jeanne Moreau, she gets a convincing cosmetic make over; while Bob, clearly enraptured by Nikita, educates her in the way of the gun and the necessity to hide one’s true feelings.
Finally 'graduating’ after killing some bad guys in an epic gun battle – which turns a lavishly appointed restaurant into an abattoir – Nikita surfaces in the world as Marie and rapidly falls in love with Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade). The rest of the film hangs on the question: Will Marco find out who the real 'Marie’ is and what will he do when he does?
Nikita does wind up in a series of tired old crime-movie, espionage film plot riffs; a high stakes heist, 'one last job,’ and Jean Reno does a nice enigmatic turn as a 'cleaner’ – the intelligence 'community’s’ equivalent, I suppose, of an on-site management consultant, when the job here goes horribly awry. Apparently Tarantino was so taken with the Reno part he ripped it off for Pulp Fiction’s Harvey Keitel episode.
What’s interesting about Nikita is that 'Marie’s 'transformation’ as an assassin is, in fact, incomplete. She may have the skill set, but she doesn’t have the heart to kill like it’s, you know, a job. It was remade as a pretty ordinary actioner as The Assassin in the US with John Badham (Blue Thunder, 1983) directing and Bridget Fonda in the starring role.
Watch 'La Femme Nikita'
Saturday 8 May, 10:10pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Monday 10 May, 2:50am on SBS World Movies
Genre: Thriller, Action
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Anne Parillaud, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Jean Reno