Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (1990) is one of those iconic movies which is better remembered than watched. Back when he was a real filmmaker, making stylish thrillers like Léon (1994), Besson was a force to be reckoned with. A boldly imaginative auteur, his films took creative risks and have endured all the better for it. His faux-feminist fable, however, hasn't aged at all well and now feels like the substance vacuum that it really is. It's colourful enough, filled with directorial flourishes and is quite inventive in its execution of action sequences - indeed, the film looks more like a John Woo flick than anything, recalling the aesthetic and pace of his 1989 masterwork The Killer. But what's really looking sour in Nikita is the central performance by Anne Parillaud. Her turn is punkish and anarchic, but often annoying, and it also derails any sympathy we may have had with her - it's just too broadly hysterical and violent. She's believably tough in the action sequences but doesn't really resemble a human being, at least not one with feelings. It's the one major way in which John Badham's 1993 remake eclipses its predecessor - because Bridget Fonda is terrific in the part.
Upon a recent re-watch I've also come to the conclusion that it's quite an underrated, albeit highly flawed little action flick. The plot is as follows: Maggie Hayward (Fonda) is a criminal-turned-government assassin who, after being caught in a chemist raid which turned into a police shootout, learns bourgeoisie etiquette and how to kill in cold blood. That she learns this in the sort of 90s montage that was eye-rollingly cheesy even upon release is what adds to the dated charm of the film. She is trained by Bob (Gabriel Byrne) who inevitably falls in love with her. It's much better paced than La Femme Nikita, and grittier. The problem with the film mainly lies in the script which, in one key moment, went with this exchange in the final draft:
Bob: Ask me why I'm so serious.
Maggie: Why are you so serious?
Bob: Because I've got serious stuff to tell you, Maggie for Margaret.
It's embarrassing, and not even two accomplished talents like Fonda and Byrne can make the lines work. But generally Fonda invests the role with the not just the warmth I've been celebrating her for so far, but also with a despondent cynicism and ferocious brutality...
When we first see Maggie she's strung out, peeking hate from under her tempered brow. With greasy black hair she's every bit the junkie criminal, and when she adds a curled lip to her trademark smile - just before shooting a cop at point blank range - we know this isn't the usual Bridget Fonda performance. "How about you kiss my ass right in the crack?" she asks Bob at one point, gleefully embracing the anarchic side of her character. She derives equal enjoyment from the rock music afforded to her by government trading. She's street smart gal and at one point K.O's a karate instructor by taking the piss out of him - as he turns away, she delivers a low-blow and flips him on his back. So it's almost completely unbelievable when she makes the transformation into an educated, beautiful assassin. It's hard to take seriously - such is the level of realism in her portrayal of the down-and-out. But Fonda turns desperation into determination and commands the screen with her physical presence; the low-cut dress makes her sexy, but the sleeveless top exhibits her muscles. She's charming and charismatic, and it always comes naturally to her. I can only imagine how unusual her casting must have seemed back in 1993 but now there's just nobody else I can envision in the role - not even Parillaud. She lends gravity and feeling, which is what such an OTT film needs.
There's not much else to recommend in the film, save for one terrific Mardi Gras sequence which cross-cuts between an emotional conversation and tense assassination attempt. It's a beautifully lit set-piece; one which shows real artistry and depth behind the dulled cheese, but it's a fleeting moment. Edited by Frank Morriss it builds a level of tension sorely missing from the rest of the film, and it's rooted with an emotional anchor - Maggie's boyfriend J.P. (Dermot Mulroney; wasted as the handsome surfer dude) proposing to her. At the end of the day the film consists more of silly moments and cameos, including Anne Bancroft, who seems to be doing a bad impression of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada(Frankel, 2006) a good decade before Streep did it herself. So once again Fonda is left to walk away with the film, in one of her boldest and best performances. Not that it was difficult. She could lift this sort of material in her sleep...