'La Femme Nikita': Cinderella fairy tale serves up a heap of violence

April 26, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'La Femme Nikita'

Starring Anne Parillaud.

Directed by Luc Besson.

Orion Classics

Rated R.

*** "La Femme Nikita," opening today at the Charles, is a dizzying, dark fairy tale for our age: It's Cinderella with guns. But instead of marrying the prince, our heroine merely serves him by murdering his enemies.

The French know how to do these things. The movie, while as long on flamboyant violence as anything in the oeuvre of Steven Seagal, is also weirdly buoyant on currents of romantic yearning and fatalism that would have no place in an American production.

When director Luc Besson first introduces us to Nikita, she's a dysfunctional Droog priestess, straight out of "A Clockwork Orange." Accompanying the line-skulled waistoids that constitute her tribe on a raid on a Paris drug store, she sits out a violent shootout with the cops with a face radiant with stupidity. Rescued by a handsome young wannabe Prince Charming, she puts a snub nose under his chin and pulls the trigger. She's convicted and sentenced to life, and delivered at last to a government intelligence agency in search of talent.

And talent she has. A guttersnipe, feral, filthy and profane, with the impulse control of a 1-year-old, she seethes with hostility and an intuitive gift for violence. Not gently, and not by magic mice, she is turned into a princess of sorts: She is counseled on "womanhood" by Jeanne Moreau and interior ballistics by a crew of young guys with stubble and shoulder holsters. She emerges a year or so later with a new identity and calling; she's an instant pro at the world's authentic oldest profession -- killer.

The conceit is cynical but stylish: that a government would recruit a killer elite from young, violent lifers, school them, and send them into the shadows to do its bidding. Of course it's not quite played straight: Style counts for more than logic. Besson takes some of the standard James Bond tropes and reimagines them in the visual style of Helmet Newton photographs, all jazzy neon decadence and wet-street slickness.

Anne Parillaud, as Nikita, holds the film together on sheer presence: one of those gamine types, her scrawny street punk with dirty teeth and bleak eyes is a Dead-Ended Kid of the '90s; throw some makeup on her and a little black thing of a cocktail dress and we are talking a beauty that says to all the world: "Kneel, swine." The camera loves to discover the passion in her eyes and the perfect landscape of bones underlying her face. And yards and yards of leg.

The movie chronicles a series of her hits -- all elegant, though the Venice job is the coolest, and comes to much more than an elaborate hotel job -- while also watching her lose her heart and ultimately her killer's edge.

Besson uses men as icons, too: He objectifies the two guys in her life entirely by an inventory of appearances. Bob (Tcheky Karyo), her mentor in death, is a hunk and a half who carries a very large magnum, but, like the Sonny Crockett he resembles, seems to always forget to shave. He's blond, Neanderthalic and has a core of brutality.

Meanwhile, Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade) is one of the meek who will inherit the Earth, if only the tough will go to another planet. He's a dreamer and a nurturer, just as phony in his way as Bob.

But these two lads are the two halves of Nikita, and she must choose. In a big American film, you'd feel the Big Twist coming up, and it's only a mark of acculturation that when the movie chooses romance over betrayal you feel initially cheated. In retrospect, the ending feels exactly right and emotionally authentic. But whatever, the ride is worth the trip.

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