Nikita (a.k.a. La Femme Nikita)

(1991) *** R
118 min. Samuel Goldwyn Company. Director: Luc Besson. Cast: Anne Parillaud, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Tcheky Karyo, Jeanne Moreau, Jean Reno.

/content/films/3296/1.jpgWriter-producer-director Luc Besson made an international splash with his stylish thriller Nikita (known on these shores as La Femme Nikita). A spy version of Pygmalion, complete with perverse romance, Nikita was well ahead of the curve when it came to women warriors as modern shoot-'em-up stars (Nikita itself was remade in America as Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda). Anne Parillaud turns in a bold and wide-ranging performance as Nikita, a woman whose feminity goes from feral to sensitive. Despite the film's feminist placement of Nikita as action hero, Besson's film underlines his penchant for wedding humanism to artillery. What Nikita learns she really wants is to rediscover her humanity by enjoying relationships and eschewing cynical violence.

Despite that sensitive theme, Besson's film won a cult audience for its pumped-up action sequences. Opening with a botched robbery, Nikita quickly entraps its heroine in a cold white room. When a man in a black suit (Tcheky Karyo's Bob) enters, Nikita cries, "Mister, is this heaven here or not?" Hardly: her death has been faked as Bob saw potential in the brutal, nihilistic, seemingly untameable young woman. "I work, let's say for the government," Bob explains. We've decided to give you another chance...To serve your country." Soon, Nikita submits to a training regimen, in firearms, hand-to-hand combat, computer skills, and poise. She's even coached in beauty and grace by no less than Jeanne Moreau, who tells her, "Remember, there are two things that have no limit: femininity and the means of taking advantage of it."

When Bob serves her birthday cake sliced with a switchblade, the subtext is clear: Nikita is born again in this opportunity, however dangerous. What follows Besson paces steadily and at a good clip. Nikita is tested, then placed back into French society as a sort of sleeper agent. Longing for normality, she shadows a woman in a grocery store, buying whatever she buys, then gravitates to the first man she meets, the warmly funny grocery clerk at the checkout stand. Nikita tries to adopt a bourgeois lifestyle with Marco, but it's only a matter of time before the phone rings to assign her a mission she can't refuse.

Besson's knack for action is apparent in each crisp set piece, particularly a kitchen shootout that establishes Nikita's skill as an assassin, and though dark, Nikita is never less than lively, an aim helped considerably when Besson regular Jean Reno shows up as Victor, the cleaner (a character and situation that no doubt inspired Tarantino's Pulp Fiction four years later). Though oft imitated by lesser talents in pap like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, Besson's estrogen-fueled actioner Nikita remains fresh.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 12/2/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony delivers the goods for La Femme Nikita with a fine transfer of this aging thriller. Probably due more to deficiencies in the source than the transfer, there are pockets of softness in the image, but Sony makes a marked improvement over the previous MGM DVD edition. Colors are excellent and detail is excellent, if not razor-sharp. With healthy film grain, there's also a natural, film-like feel to the transfer. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound mix is potent, making the most of the nearly twenty-year-old source materials, especially in the gunshot-riddled action sequences. No extras on this bare-bones release (unless you count previews for other Sony titles and a BD Live hookup for...more previews), but regardless this is the disc to get for fans of the film, given the unbeatable A/V presentation.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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