Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: La Femme Nikita (1990)
Studio Line: MGM

Internationally acclaimed director Luc Besson delivers a tour de force with his action-packed story of Nikita (Anne Parillaud), a ruthless street junkie whose killer instincts could make her the perfect weapon. Recruited against her will into a secret government organization by a sadistic man known only as Bob, Nikita is broken and remade. In three years, Bob transforms her into a sexy, sophisticated 'lethal weapon' named Josephine. Released from the training compound, Nikita is caught in a web of intrigue and murder-trapped in a double life as Marco's lover and Bob's hired gun. The thrilling provocative climax makes La Femme Nikita one of the most shocking and intelligent espionage adventures ever!

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Anne Parillaud, Marc duret, Patrick Fontana, Laura Cheron, Jacques Boudet
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 32 chapters; rated R; 118 min.; $19.98; street date 10/3/00.
Supplements: US Theatrical Trailer; Collectible Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Eric Serra

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/C+/D-

Perhaps I'm overstating the case, but I believe that La Femme Nikita offered most Americans their first chance to witness the work of French filmmaker Luc Besson. While earlier efforts such as 1985's Subway and 1988's The Big Blue had reached an audience, I think LFM marked the initial occasion on which a more general crowd learned of one of Besson's films.

I know this was the case for me, though I never actually took in a showing of LFM until now, a decade after its initial release. Frankly, I probably would have continued to skip it were it not for the affection I've developed for many of Besson's other films such as 1994's Leon, 1997's The Fifth Element, and 1999's The Messenger. With those movies as a background, I decided to give LFM a look.

Actually, I'd seen the American remake of LFM, 1994's Point of No Return. I remember little of it other than the basic premise and the fact it didn't impress me. While I wasn't bowled over by LFM, it definitely provides a better film experience that its American cousin.

LFM tells the story of Nikita (Anne Parillaud), a junkie who kills a cop during an ill-fated robbery. Sentenced to a long jail term, a mysterious government agency takes her instead and makes her an offer she can't refuse: train and work for them or die. Sensibly, Nikita choose the former option and ultimately becomes a deadly agent.

The movie covers a lot of ground and skips around a little too quickly at times; some basic elements - such as parts of Nikita's training or a love affair - pass by with very little attention. Actually, I can't say that the omitted shots were really necessary, but the quick jumps in time can feel rather disconcerting.

One element that holds the film together is Parillaud's terrific performance as Nikita. You know those movies that take an allegedly-unattractive woman and gradually turn her into a babe? Most of the time the transformation is unconvincing since we can tell all along that the woman in question is beautiful. However, in the case of LFM, we really buy Nikita's growth and development, largely through the portrayal given by Parillaud. She plays all sides of the character effectively, from the scungy, desperate junkie to the stubborn wild-child to the elegant, refined killer to the simple, happy woman in love. It's quite a remarkable piece of acting and it helps the film immeasurably.

Besson always has been a wonderfully visceral and visual director, but I must say his style seems oddly restrained here. Perhaps this impression more reflects my expectations that the actual content; I figured I'd see some explosive action set-pieces ala Leon but the scenes included don't rival that film's theatrics.

Even without those segments, La Femme Nikita remains a pretty compelling piece. The characters are a little sketchy but fairly well-realized, and the acting - including a terrific cameo from Besson favorite Jean Reno - seems top-notch. Although not among the best Besson has to offer, it fits in well with the rest of his oeuvre and deserves a look.

One footnote: I have to believe that James Cameron was a fan of LFM, because a couple of parts of Terminator 2 directly copy bits of Besson's film. For one, when Nikita's supervisor Bob (Tcheky Karyo) comes to visit her and her boyfriend Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), she refers to him as "Uncle Bob"; that name was used for the T-800 when John Connor introduces him to acquaintances. Also, a scene in which Nikita tries to smile closely resembles one in which the T-800 attempts to do the same. (The latter piece comes from the special edition cut and wasn't in the theatrical version of T2.) Coincidence? Kinda doubt it!

The DVD:

La Femme Nikita appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall I found the movie to look fairly good, with only a few minor problems to mar the presentation.

Sharpness usually seemed pretty crisp and well-defined. A few wider shots appeared slightly soft and hazy, but these were in the minority as most of the film was clear and accurate. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused a few concerns, and I saw moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws seemed minor. I detected modest grain on occasion and also noted a few speckles or bits of grit, but for the most part, the movie seemed free from defects.

Colors looked largely solid, with clear and accurate hues on display. At times the colors appeared dense, but they worked well within the design of the film and I saw no problems with them. Black levels seemed deep and dense with good contrast, and shadow detail was appropriately dark without any excessive heaviness. All in all, the movie looked fine, with just a couple of issues that lowered my rating to a still-solid "B".

The original French Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of La Femme Nikita appears on this DVD, and it seems like a fairly adequate mix but nothing special. The soundfield was pretty lackluster as it appeared restricted through most of the film. The front spectrum strongly dominated, and the center channel took up most of the action. Music spread modestly to the side speakers, and some mild ambiance appeared from them as well, but I heard pretty limited action. The surrounds kicked in some music and mild ambient effects as well but largely were quiet.

Quality seemed fairly good though also did not appear special. Since it was in French, I couldn't honestly judge intelligibility, but the dialogue sounded crisp and natural to me and I noticed no signs of roughness or edginess. Effects were decently bold and realistic, though they lacked any real punch. Music sounded clear and warm but also displayed little dynamic range. The entire mix was clean and smooth but it could have used some extra power behind it. As such, I gave it a respectable but unexceptional "C+".

La Femme Nikita also includes an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that seems to correct some of the concerns I had about the French mix. The English version offers a more dynamic mix with stronger effects, better stereo sound delineation, and deeper bass.

Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, this extra punch comes with a price: poorly-dubbed dialogue. Longtime readers of my reviews may know that I have no inherent dislike of dubbed soundtracks; in some instances, I prefer them to subtitles because I feel the latter can be awfully intrusive. However, it depends on the quality of the new dialogue, and that of LFN isn't very good. The speech integrates with the action very poorly, and the performances are hammy and broad.

Although I was tempted to go with the English soundtrack because of the extra expansiveness of the effects and music, the weak dubbing scared me away from it and I stuck to the French mix. It's less exciting, but the better-integrated dialogue ultimately made it more satisfying. (For the record, the DVD defaults to the French mix, with the English subtitles activated.)

La Femme Nikita includes only a couple of supplements. We find the film's US theatrical trailer and some fairly brief but nicely informative production notes in the booklet. It ain't much, but oh well.

Despite the lack of substantial extras, La Femme Nikita makes for an interesting DVD. I didn't like the movie as much as enjoyed some of Luc Besson's later works like Leon or The Fifth Element, but it's still a solid action film boosted by quality acting. The DVD offers fairly good picture and sound but almost no supplements. Overall, the film should appeal to fans of rough action fare, and Besson aficionados will definitely want to add it to their collections.

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