Benjamin has been reviewing films for sixteen years and has seen more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the Big Deal?
Nikita (also known as La Femme Nikita) is a French action thriller film released in 1990 and was written and directed by Luc Besson. The film is about a young woman who is jailed for life after the murder of a policeman.She is instead trained to become an assassin. The film stars Anne Parillaud, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Tchéky Karyo, Jeanne Moreau and Jean Reno. Initially, the film received a lukewarm reception from critics, especially those in France who felt the movie lacked depth and was a triumph of style over substance. However, the film proved popular with audiences all over the world and has since become a cult hit. It also led to two remakes—Black Cat from Hong Kong in 1991 and America's Point Of No Return a year later—as well as two TV series based on the film.
What's It About?
Nikita is a young woman in the grip of addiction, living on the streets with her equally delinquent friends. One night, in their desperation to find drugs, she is involved in a robbery on a pharmacy that quickly turns violent. After her friends are shot by police, Nikita herself shots an officer dead before being overwhelmed and arrested. Sentenced to life in prison, she awakens in a non-descript room after her captors fake her death. Meeting the sharp-suited Bob, she is offered a choice - train to become an assassin working for her country or be killed for real. Although reluctant, Nikita begins her training.
Graduating after a number of years in the mysterious "Centre", Nikita is given a new identity (Marie) and a codename—Josephine—and is sent out into the world as a sleeper agent. Moving into a ramshackle apartment in Paris and beginning a relationship with check-out operator Marco, Nikita is at pains to keep her job a secret from her lover. But as her career continues, it becomes harder to keep Marco in the dark about her deadly adventures...
Nikita / Marie Clement
Victor, the cleaner
Release Date (UK)
12th October, 1990
What's to Like?
I'm so pleased that I finally got the chance to watch this, having been on my radar for a long time. Besson has carved himself a niche creating movies in his native France but in a very American style and sure enough, Nikita is very much in that vein. From its blue-tinged shoot-out and seductive score by Eric Serra, the film is a brutal cross between film noir and Pygmalion which sees Parillaud's junkie blossom into arguably one of cinema's most bad-ass action heroines ever seen. Her performance is equally full-throttle in that it delivers power, emotion and even humour in material that is actually pretty dark. Karyo is also superb as her handler Bob, a seasoned veteran who allows Nikita to get under his skin.
However, the film's break-out star is Reno as Victor - a cold and unflinching killer who somehow ends up being both very cool and likeable at the same time. If you've ever had the pleasure of watching Leon then you can see that character's origins here with the same round glasses and impassive manner. Actually, there is someone else who impresses greatly here - Besson's direction and kinetic cinematography makes Nikita a brilliant action film. Crucially, it's brave enough to not follow American action tropes but dares to show us something different, whether its the camera following a bullet to its target or flying down an escape chute behind our heroine as she desperately evades some gunmen. Despite the language, the film is easy to follow and tremendously enjoyable. It's everything I hoped it would be.
- The film was funded by the Gaumont Film Company to the tune of 39 million francs without them ever seen the script for the film after Besson's huge success with his previous movie The Big Blue.
- The reason for the film being known as La Femme Nikita (The Woman Nikita) overseas is because Nikita is often used as a man's name, as it is in Russia.
- Besson had Parillaud train extensively with guns and she would often practise loading and unloaded them in her car. She became so proficient that she found herself one day surrounded by armed police thinking she was a potential shooter.
What's Not to Like?
My only real complaint is with Anglade as Nikita's partner. His performance feels very different from everyone else in the cast, as though he is unaware the character is appearing in a taunt action thriller. This may be intentional—after all, he is unaware of what he has gotten himself into—but the relationship dynamic between him and Parillaud didn't feel as natural and authentic as I wanted it to be. The film also has a fairly significant Cold War feel to it which isn't surprising, given its age. But for a film ahead of its time, it does make the film feel a little old-fashioned - one can easily imagine the film nowadays focusing on cyber-terrorism and radical extremism instead of traditional spooks in the shadows with long coats and a Trilby.
Apart from these minor issues, there really isn't any reason why you wouldn't watch this explosive action thriller that doesn't just rely on shoot-outs and car chases. The tender scenes between Parillaud and Anglade do slow the film down but illustrate the difficulties between personal and professional lives so I can't begrudge them. It isn't exactly cutting edge these days but at the time, Nikita shook things up considerably. Unless subtitles switch you off, this is one film you really should pursue.
Should I Watch It?
It might be old hat these days but Nikita is an electrifying action thriller that dispels any notions you may have about French cinema. It's slick, sexy and easily betters any of its remakes thanks to Parillaud's performance, Reno's very cool cleaner and Besson's inventive direction. Forget the rest and stick with the best - this film is so much more than its derivatives may suggest. Tre's bien!
Great For: action fans, Francophiles, Jean Reno's career
Not So Great For: subtitle haters, critics of Besson for copying the Americans
What Else Should I Watch?
Besson has increasingly turned more towards an American style of film-making - consider that his first film Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle) was a black-and-white post-apocalyptic drama with only two lines of dialogue in the whole thing. These days, he seems more content writing and producing than actual directing with films like Colombiana, Taken, The Transporter and District 13 all flowing from his pen. However, he does like to occasionally veer off into a grand space opera - his last big release Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets might not have surpassed his more popular effort The Fifth Element but both films show a director not afraid to fill the vision with his artistic flair and vision.
France, of course, is not afraid of a good action movie and there have been some corkers like The Bourne Identity and the under-rated Ronin. Mind you, we have also had to endure more middling efforts like From Paris With Love (which was crippled by the hilarious sight of John Travolta being a bald as a plucked chicken) and the forgettable Bastille Day, a film that proved that Idris Elba might not be the best choice for playing James Bond.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox
Tea Cake on December 18, 2019:
After watching the rather disappointing US reboot a few days ago, I felt inclined to watch the original, just to make sure it still remained as excellent as it was when I first had the pleasure of watching it way back when.
And as expected, it still stands the test of time, and in no small measure to the sleek direction of Besson, and the rather sublime performance from Parillaud. Add to that some lush editing, and a seductive score by Eric Serra, and you have the complete film!
Sam Shepards from Europe on May 24, 2019:
Leon I also enjoyed a lot for example... The most recent, "pure" action movies are probably the John Wick saga, but we'll see how far they are going to milk that cow.
Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on May 24, 2019:
Action movies benefit from a sense of style, I find - Nikita or The Matrix are good examples. Those you mentioned, not so much...
Sam Shepards from Europe on May 22, 2019:
Will put this one on my rewatch list, last time I have seen it would be somewhere in 1995.
I've enjoyed most of Besson's action movies, the '90s had more of these guilty pleasure action films. I prefer those over things like the expendables or fast and furious saga.