Luc Besson’s spy thriller chills and excites with beaucoup style three decades on, and proves his bona fides as an action filmmaker.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, the action film genre in America was in a bit of a doldrums. The same figures who had dominated the previous decade were still making movies, but their efforts were becoming more forced and listless. Even masters of the form like Walter Hill and Clint Eastwood were coming up with duds like Another 48 Hrs (1990) and The Rookie (1990), chasing past glories with sequels and knockoffs rather than attempting anything new. Sure, the Hong Kong scene was thriving with the works of John Woo and Tsui Hark, but few in the US outside of film circles were familiar with them.
Clearly the genre needed a breath of fresh air, but who would have expected it to come from France? And yet, it was from there that the scent of eau de badass wafted into American cinemas in the form of Nikita, a super-stylish and exciting work from writer-producer-director Luc Besson. It had already become a worldwide hit by the time it hit U.S. screens—the “La Femme” was reportedly added for its American release to prevent viewers from thinking it was a Russian import—and made the recent efforts by the home team seem even more tired and passe than they already were.
As the film opens, teenage junkie Nikita (Anne Parillaud) and pals are pulling a violent robbery of a pharmacy owned by one of her compatriots’ parents. It inevitably goes badly, but as the bullets fly and bodies fall during a shootout with police, Nikita just sits under a counter, seemingly obvious to it all. When it’s all over, another cop approaches her; though he poses no threat, she calmly pulls her gun and shoots him dead for no real reason. She’s sentenced to life in prison, but while there, she’s taken by people who fake her death via a tranquilizer overdose and spirit her away.
When she wakes up, she’s informed by Bob (Tcheky Karyo) that she has been recruited by a shadowy quasi-governmental group known as “The Centre” and has a choice: she can either train with them to become an elite assassin or she can fill the empty grave that already has her name on it. She grudgingly chooses the former and is trained in all the deadly skills of the trade—firearms, martial arts and (this is a French movie, after all) makeup and clothing tips (courtesy of a handler played by no less a figure than the legendary Jeanne Moreau)—to make her a truly fatal femme.
At first, all is bliss for Nikita (now living undercover in Paris under the name Marie), quickly acquiring a chic apartment and a doting boyfriend in Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade), a supermarket clerk instantly besotted with her. (She tells him she is a nurse.) At first, Nikita is able to separate her personal and professional lives easily enough. But that becomes more complicated when Bob, posing as a relative of hers, bestows the newly-engaged couple with tickets to Venice and a hotel room with a bathroom that just happens to overlook Nikita’s next target. She is able to wriggle out of that one, but things really take a turn when another job goes south and requires the services of Victor The Cleaner (Jean Reno) to come in and mop up the mess by any means necessary.
When I saw Nikita for the first time thirty years ago, I only knew Besson, a hugely popular filmmaker in his home country, from Le Grande Bleu (1988), an elaborate saga about free divers that was huge in Europe but which was recut and retitled The Big Blue for its extremely short-lived U.S. release. I wasn’t familiar with Parillaud at all. However, then as now, I have always been a sucker for pretty much anything French, and the poster — which featured an impossibly stylish Parillaud brandishing a gun and a little black dress with equally lethal intentions — was certainly an attention-getter as well.
Of course, the annals of film history are strewn with examples of striking posters promoting ultimately crummy movies. But not only did Nikita prove to live up to its one-sheet expectations, it exceeded them.
From the startling opening shot of Nikita and her drugged-out cronies walking down the street, it was clear that this film was going to be different. It was impossibly sleek and sexy in a way that practically leapt off the screen—the kind of movie world that you didn’t want to leave once the end credits concluded and the lights went up. At the same time, the action beats were staged with a combination of wild excitement, exact precision and impeccable style that left viewers breathless.
Of course, Besson approached his work as a director with such unabashed glee and excitement that he was able to invest the scene involving Nikita’s first post-prison trip to a grocery store with a giddy headlong rush that put most pure action scenes of the time to shame.
Unlike a lot of things that were considered to be au courant in the spring of 1991, Nikita still holds up strikingly well today. Part of this is because it remains one of Besson’s most strongly constructed films: the action beats still give a thrill and the narrative is, outside of its outrageous initial premise, arguably the most straightforward of all his films. You won’t find any of the oddball digressions that have cropped in his other works to the delight of his fans and the dismay of others. Nikita is also aided immeasurably by the contributions from cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and composer Eric Serra, whose efforts have aged beautifully enough to move from tres chic to classique.
The most important factor to the continued effectiveness of Nikita is Parillaud herself, who impeccably handles Nikita’s transformations from near-feral punk to deadly killer to a woman giddy in love for the first time. She’s also fearsomely convincing in her action scenes in a way that keeps them from spilling over into cartoonishness.
Needless to say, the film made her an international star (though it evidently did little for her relationship with Besson, whom she had been married to since 1986, as the split shortly after its release). While her big bid for American stardom in John Landis’s underrated Innocent Blood (1992) didn’t quite pan out, she would go on to a steady career in European film and television. But she would never again get a part as memorable as Nikita.
Although the subtitles meant that Nikita was largely relegated to the art house circuit during its American theatrical release, it became an immediate cult favorite. It would go on to inspire remakes in Hong Kong (Black Cat (1991)) and America (the slick-but-pointless Point of No Return (1993)) and two long-running TV series in 1997 and 2010. The success of the film also supercharged Besson’s career to the point where he became one of France’s most prolific filmmakers, producing dozens of films over the years and directing such favorites as Leon (1994), The Fifth Element (1997) and Lucy (2014).
In the wake of the box-office disaster of his delirious sci-fi epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he would offer up his own loose remake of Nikita with Anna (2019), but the combination of similar elements just didn’t come off the second time around.
I confess, as you have probably surmised by now, that I am a passionate fan of Luc Besson and when he is firing on all cylinders. While there may be films of his that I prefer to Nikita (such as Leon, The Fifth Element and Valerian), it’s one that will always hold a place in my heart. Unlike a lot of first loves, however, it’s the kind that one can look back on with zero embarrassment because, much like its title character, Nikita still packs a mighty punch.