Back in the 1960s, so many westerns were being produced and directed by Europeans that they spawned a new subgenre, called Eurowesterns, paella Westerns, and the most famous, spaghetti Westerns, made popular by the success of Sergio Leone.
Once in a podcast long ago, Patrick and I suggested that Luc Besson’s action movies were the modern version of the spaghetti western, an import lovingly infused with European flavor to a traditionally American genre. La Femme Nikita (originally titled Nikita) was one of the first in the wave of action movies heavy on style, which has manifested itself in bigger titles like the John Wick series and Atomic Blonde, to smaller ones like The Villainess. We take a moment here to celebrate one of the modern progenitors of the category.
My Fair Lady except a French girl junkie turning into a spy/assassin. What could go wrong?
The Best Bits
Anne Parillaud - it’s difficult to make this work unless we’re rooting for the central character in the midst of the chaos. Although openly indifferent to a sequel or return to the character, Parillaud plays Nikita as a troubled, scared kid whose gruff exterior is eggshell-thin. Although the movie encapsulates years of Nikita’s life, she never comes off as a professional, robotic killing machine; she isn’t like the Black Widow or Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, who are trained from birth for a lifelong mission. We see Nikita on the verge of panic even as she coolly completes her missions, never really losing sight of the inherent insanity of being an undercover killer while trying to be normal. Not only Parillaud’s look but her inherent pathos makes Nikita so iconic.
It’s a relationship movie? - On this rewatch, I was surprised by how much of the story is taken up by the relationship that Nikita attempts to establish with her love interest, Marco, a happy fella she meets at the supermarket. Most of the movie is conversations, actually, with Marco or with Nikita’s handler, Bob, which makes it feel perhaps slower than expected from what is known as an action movie. I guess it makes sense, because there’s only a total of four action set pieces.
Too much relationship outside of the movie - Besson and Parillaud were married at the time of filming, though divorcing a year after Nikita’s release. Besson apparently has a penchant for falling for his lead actresses, including Milla Jovovich when they worked together on The Fifth Element.
Why it still matters in 2020
Despite these forerunners, Nikita still feels unique in its place as a primary text for so many of the female assassin movies which came afterward. Aside from the direct adaptations of Point of No Return and the two television series (starring Peta Wilson and Maggie Q, respectively), the movies that borrow heavily from the stylized assassin formula include Haywire, Underworld, Salt, Atomic Blonde (so, John Wick as well), Red Sparrow, Hanna, and The Villainess, and that’s not even including all of the Milla Jovo-verse of Ultraviolet and the Resident Evil movies. Besson himself can’t help dipping back into his own bag of tricks with Colombiana and Anna, though lately it feels like he’s overcooked his formula for his assassin stories.