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Les Femmes Nikitas
In 1990, Luc Besson made Nikita - known as La Femme Nikita in the United States - one of the most influential action heroine movies of all time. It inspired one official remake, an unofficial Hong Kong version, a TV series that ran for 96 episodes, and elements of it have cropped up ever since, in a huge range of creative endeavours, from The Long Kiss Goodnight through Prisoner Maria to Dangerous Prey and Phantom: The Submarine.
With the release of the original movie in a "Special Edition" DVD (albeit one that, by most accounts, isn't very special), and the first season of the TV show also coming out in a box-set, it seems like a good opportunity to take a look at the films. [The series remains outwith the range of this article for reasons of lack of time...and, if truth be told, enthusiasm. The first episode set the tone, changing our drug-addicted anti-heroine into an innocent homeless girl. Ick. I did try rewatching the show earlier this week, but it hadn't improved, despite the use of Run Lola Run's music. The 'adventure' I saw had Peta Wilson locked in a basement, while a dude borrowed from Psycho pawed her. If you want to see what this show should have been like, watch Alias. I thus leave writing about it to someone else. Any takers?]
Nikita (a.k.a. La Femme Nikita)
Dir: Luc Besson
Stars: Anne Parillaud, Tcheky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Jeanne Moreau
Luc Besson's original contains all the necessary elements which would become standard for the field. A criminal is "killed" by the government, only to be resurrected into a new life as an assassin for the authorities. Initially resistant, she eventually embraces her new life, but a romance reminds her of the world she left behind, and becomes a potentially lethal threat to her existence when it starts to interfere with her professional capabilities.
This kind of thing has been done so often since, in one form or another, it's hard to remember how fresh and invigorating it seemed at the time. Even so, not many movies since have had the courage to make their heroine a junkie cop-killer, and it says a lot for both Parrilaud and Besson that Nikita still comes over as sympathetic. She's a victim of circumstance, her only use to the state as a trained killer, but the film strongly makes the case that she remains a person, with feelings and emotions like the rest of us.
It is these that eventually prove her downfall, when she encounters Victor the cleaner (Jean Reno), and realises that he is what she will eventually become. Seeing him kill people, as easily as we would swat a fly, it's clear that, no matter how lengthy her indoctrination and training, she still kept her essential humanity and there is a line she won't cross. Mind you, the original ending was rather more explosive, with Nikita turning her skills to exact revenge on her creators. Whether through a lack of resources, or a desire for a less confrontational finale, this was dropped in favour of a softer, more ambivalent ending which was also copied by subsequent versions.
Though this might have been nice from an action heroine point of view - as is, you wonder why they bothered with all that specialized training - I'm more than prepared to settle for the actual version of the film. The performances are all sound, Parillaud's in particular (her "singing" voice is a stroke of genius!), and Besson's style shines through a bluish haze of raindrops, wet streets and car headlights. Avoid, at all costs, the English dubbed version: that's what Point of No Return is for. Even if you can't or won't read subtitles, you will have little difficulty in understanding the film, such is the raw emotion the actors put into their portrayals.
At two hours long, there is perhaps a slight deficit of actual action, not least in comparison to the hyperkinetic pace of contemporary genre entries. Some facets of the film, such as the romance, seem overplayed, albeit largely because the actors get the significance over so well. However, it's not as if you'll find yourself looking at your watch, and - if you'll pardon the pun - the execution here is almost flawless.
Point of No Return
Dir: John Badham
Stars: Bridget Fonda, Gabriel Byrne, Dermot Mulroney, Anne Bancroft
This was called The Assassin in Britain, though a more fitting title would be Remake of No Point. I hadn't seen this since it originally came out, and it was a quite deliberate choice to watch it first for this article, hoping to escape the sense of deja-vu. Unfortunately, I couldn't: its strengths are exactly those of Besson's original, while the weaknesses are largely its own.
I can see the purpose of remakes, be they of old movies or foreign ones, when you bring something new to the table. However, it's entirely understandable that Luc Besson passed on directing the American version, pointing out that he'd already made the movie he wanted. For Venice, read New Orleans. For Nikita, read Nina. For Jeanne Moreau, read Anne Bancroft. About the most significant difference in the storyline is that Fonda listens to Nina Simone.
Balancing the cast off, most are fractionally less effective than their French counterparts, although not so much that you'd notice. There are two exceptions: Dermot Mulroney fails miserably as Maggie's boyfriend, J.P, to the point where I would have run screaming out the door, and that was after less than two hours in his company. Their relationship fails to convince, and since Badham places it close to the centre of the film, it's a major flaw.
On the other hand, Harvey Keitel comes perilously close to stealing the whole show as Victor the Cleaner. Jean Reno was good in the original, yet Keitel brings a whole new dimension of menace, and clearly inspired Tarantino for Pulp Fiction. They missed the chance for a spin-off of genuine inventiveness there.
But what little originality actually is brought to the film, largely doesn't work, in particular a sappy romantic montage between Maggie and J.P. As a director, Badham does a good job with the action sequences - you'd expect nothing less given his track record in the likes of War Games - even when all he's really doing, is recreating scenes such as the kitchen shoot-out (watch those desserts fly!). There does seem to be rather more Fonda underwear footage too... :-)
Relocating everything to the States is not such a bad thing. While I don't know about the French government, a school for psychotic murderers is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility - the infamous School of the Americas does much the same for Latin American death squads. And, taken on its own, this is not a bad film. But if you have ever seen the French original, then the American remake becomes entirely superfluous and, as mentioned above, it feels more like you're watching an English dub, albeit a credibly well-voiced one.
A remake was supposed to be necessary because American audiences wouldn't watch a subtitled film, but when the box-office spoke, Point took only $30m. The original was a French take on a mostly-American genre, but something is definitely missing when it comes home. Perhaps Badham should have slept with Fonda during production, as Besson did with Parillaud.
Dir: Stephen Shin
Stars: Jade Leung, Simon Yam, Thomas Lam
Before the official remake of Nikita came out, Hong Kong had already delivered its take on the matter. The film starts in New York, and a large part of this is in English, though the acting there is so woeful as to make you lean towards the Chinese dubbed version. The heroine, Erica, is made more sympathetic: while she still kills a cop, she's not a junkie, and is "shot" while trying to escape. She wakes up under the watchful eye of Simon Yam, in the "Uncle Bob" role (though here, he's a 'cousin').
From here, the plot is similar to Nikita - missions, qualms, romance, escape attempt, etc - and interestingly, her boyfriend (Thomas Lam) is a photographer, an idea also used in the later Point. There are, however, significant differences in the details. For example, Erica has a chip implanted in her brain, supposedly, to help her achieve her full potential, but all it seems to do is give her raging headaches [admittedly, a potentially useful control mechanism]. They also skip the etiquette lessons, which seemed irrelevant to me anyway - how do good table manners help, when your mission solely involves the use of a sniper rifle?
The specifics of her missions are also altered. The final test, rather than an assassination in a restaurant, is to kill the bride at a Jewish wedding, for reasons left unexplained - but given the heavy weaponry carried by a lot of guests, it's perhaps no bad thing! Others involve shooting an executive of the WWF (the nature group, not the wrestling federation!), a throat-slitting at a Japanese hot spring resort, and, in the best-staged sequence, dropping a lot of metal from a great height onto the roof of her target.
However, the movie's main strength is Jade Leung, who fully deserved the Best Newcomer award she won at the 11th Hong Kong Film Awards. Every facet of her character is consistent and believable, certainly more so than Bridget Fonda - it's at least the equal of Anne Parillaud, and arguably may be even better. Yam is perhaps a kinder, gentler handler: he doesn't shoot his protege in the leg, for example, yet the relationship between them is missing the romantic spark which lurked in the original. As for Thomas Lam, he's not Dermot Mulroney, and that alone is an improvement.
The film is undeniably flawed, not least in a soundtrack that is often wildly inappropriate, and seems to have been pulled at random from easy-listening CDs. But its core is solid, and in a lot of ways, this is a more justifiable movie than Point of No Return. While the story remains the same, Black Cat does at least bring a bottle to the party, adding enough new twists to make it interesting (and avoid a lawsuit). Leung's fine performance is an unexpected bonus.
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