You are about to read a review of a feminist movie made by Frenchman Luc Besson, master of machismo. You may not know his name, but he is a key figure behind much of our action films, from writing and producing The Transporter series to doing the same for the infamous Taken action movies and producing many, many more than I can list from Hitman to 22 Bullets! He is the last person one would consider writing a movie with a female protagonist unless you consider that he has not only directed such a movie, but done so recently with 2014’s Lucy with Scarlet Johansson to box office success. He also did an earlier movie back in the 97, The Fifth Element, which co-starred a red haired human weapon played by Scarlet Johansson’s femme fatale predecessor, Milla Jovovich.” Both movies were pretty interesting from an action movie standpoint since rather than be simple love interests both characters were fairly independent and kicked-ass on their own right, with Jovovich playing a “perfect” human being able to take on swarms of alien baddies and Johansson simply blowing up whoever stood in her way with her mind. Still you can argue “these aren’t feminist movies!” Fifth Element actually stars Bruce Willis who ends up compensating for a momentarily fragile Jovovich needing the power of his love to save the world, and Johansson despite being the lead lacks personality other than being a non-stop killing machine. There is a movie that has neither of these weaknesses, and that is an earlier 1990 French language film known simply as Nikita
Nikita is a spy movie starring Anne Parillaud with one question, “what makes a female assassin?” The result is essentially a two part movie, a portion I refer to as “My Fair Agent” where Parillaud’s Nikita goes through a transformation from a street punk to a sleek and poised young woman, and of course the second part which details Nikita’s career dealing death while trying to live a normal life. Luc Besson really makes things interesting by, rather than focus on witty one-liners and explosions like in James Bond, really get to let us know that psychological experience of being an agent. And it helps since we really get to know Nikita that Parillaud is just magnificent playing her and the script at showing her off. The result is not only a strong female protagonist, but a character full of heart and personality unlike a trend in movies many dislike, have women who all we know about them is that they are good in a fire-fight.
To showcase just how often awesome Nikita is as a character, let’s follow her step by step. We first see her with a few friends who are raiding a local pharmacy to get high. The cops find them out and Nikita, being implied to be high as all get out, has been chilling behind a table hardly even noticing there’s a fire-fight. A police officer, believing she’s just some scared girl, tries to get her out into the open face full of kindness. This is where she takes a gun out and shoots him in the head.
This is one of a slew of situations that tells us that Parillaud is not playing your typical frail or helpless waif. When interrogated by a sleasy older male cop she is slapped after she only offers her nickname, Nikita, rather than her given name. Nikita simply smiles, asks for a pencil so she can presumably fill out forms, and then takes the pencil and jams it into his hand! When sentenced to life in prison Nikita needs not one, but over five officers to contain her as she knocks around her initial care-takers, and then when she finds herself in a strange place later on she breaks a chair over captor and is almost able to negotiate her escape. Coming to terms with the fact that her carefree junkie life is over, Nikita finally accepts that officially she is dead, finding that her country is giving her a second lease on life as a government sponsored secret agent.
To call Parillaud spunky is to do her an injustice, spunky women are often seen as just putting a front. Parillaud yells, screams, assaults, using her feelings of helplessness and fear as a sort of war point to show her government overseers that she’ll do whatever they want on her terms. She beats up her martial arts trainer, gifts her technology coach a live mouse (to his horror) and paints her room with expletives graffiti style in a rebel without a cause defiance. Parillaud is just a joy to watch as we as the audience constantly ask, what will she do next? What she does? She matures.
Towards the end of her years long training Nikita starts to add additional elements to her personality. No longer the indignant punk at the beginning of the film, instead she styles her hair, puts on nice dresses, and rather than scream at anyone who talks to her simply gives a wide grin and says “that’s nice, but I’ll do it my way.” The perfect example is, once she’s released, she goes straight to the supermarket and fills her cart with canned goods. She finds herself having a pleasant conversation with the cashier and, thinking he looks hot, promptly asks him when he gets off and whether he’ll have dinner with her. After dinner she decides she REALLY likes him and says simply “I want you” pushing him over on the coach and engaging in romance. It’s hard to explain without actually seeing her in action, but Nikita simply leaps into one’s memory as a recognizable character who’s frankly incredibly fun to watch. I think if I could compare her to a popular American character it’d be Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a likably eccentric character who may be a little wacky, but that’s what’s lovable.
The second part of the film, as advertised, is about Nikita as a full-fledged sleeper agent. She’s good at it too, from posing as a hotel maid to secret in what I can assume are listening bugs to simply assembling a sniper rifle in a cramped bathroom and taking down a woman within seconds of knowing her appearance. However, although from the beginning we know that she’s competent with fire arms and is no stranger around aggression, we learn that Nikita has grown up in more ways than just composing herself as an [almost] responsible adult, but she slowly realizes that she’s horrified by her actions and her profession. This all comes to a head when a mission goes wrong a “cleaner” arrives on the scene to murder away the problem. When even Nikita’s partner balks at the senseless violent he is eliminated, forcing Nikita herself to shoulder the weight.
The performances, the story, everything delivers not only one of the best female fronted action movies, but also one of the best female protagonists of all time.
Don’t believe me? Nikita has been adapted not once, but three times for North American audiences, from Bridget Fonda’s Point of No Return in 1993 to two television series’: 1997-2001’s La Femme Nikita to 2010-2013’s Nikita. Though I’ve only seen the original Nikita, a friend of mine who’s a fan of the most recent adaption feels that they both make worthy companions. Thus if you’re a fan of one of the series’s (or even the American adaption) I recommend giving the French language a shot.
Personally I’ll be watching Luc Besson as he pumps out more and more movies. Honestly I felt Lucy was pretty good as a return to directing and as we all know, the world needs more female protagonists. And who knows, maybe someone will do a worthy remake of Nikita in the future!