Spy 100, #98: La Femme Nikita

La Femme Nikita(1990) is more style than substance, a dark, slick French adventure starring Anne Parillaud as Nikita, a drug-addled street punk who, in the wake of a violent felony conviction, is “rescued” by an intelligence agency. There, the cold and steely Bob (Tcheky Karyo) undertakes to transform this violent, irredeemable kid into a trained operative. With life imprisonment her only other option, Nikita agrees and undergoes a rigorous, years-long training program before finally being released to perform missions for the government. Once back in the world, she quickly lands a charming civilian boyfriend (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and starts a new life, only to find it constantly interrupted by stressful, terrifying missions forced upon her by her spy masters.

It’s easy to see why this was such an influential film: it’s nicely shot and produced, with gritty, intense action sequences, and — perhaps most importantly — a gripping central premise, which the film only really partially exploits. (Indeed, the concept is tailor-made for an episodic TV show, which it eventually spawned:  La Femme Nikita the TV version ran for five seasons on USA. This movie also seems to be a pretty direct ancestor of Alias, a show that got a lot of mileage out of Sydney Bristow’s struggle to balance personal issues with spy duties.) Although the build-up is somewhat laborious, the pace eventually picks up, and the action is generally compelling.

That said, I didn’t really love this one. For one thing, the slightly crazy, unpredictable Nikita seems an unconvincing choice for a cold-blooded, highly disciplined assassin, a logic issue never really surpassed by events. Parillaud is generally engaging, but occasionally distractingly hysterical, and her character never entirely earns the sympathy the film demands of the viewer. (She may have started out a bit too awful.) Also — and I know this is kind of a stupid criticism —  the horribly dated, late-1980s synth-rock soundtrack is painfully bad.

I think my main issue, though, is that the inherent intrigue of Nikita’s situation ultimately seems hollow; interesting questions are asked, but never answered. The film seems much more concerned with its surface action than with what lies beneath it, which for me is always the more interesting angle of a spy film. La Femme Nikita certainly does enough, I think, to warrant mention on the list, but at the end of the day it may have influenced the genre more than it actually accomplishes within it.

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