Before you reach 'Point of No Return' film gets interesting

March 20, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Point of No Return" isn't a remake so much as a tracing of another movie, Luc Besson's original "La Femme Nikita" of just three years ago. So in a certain respect it feels dead; it has glitz, glamour and pizazz but no personality or spontaneity; it feels as if it were directed by a robot. Whatever it represented to Besson, I'll tell you what it represented to John Badham: a paycheck.

Still . . . it kind of packs a punch. OK, I watched, I rooted, I enjoyed and, toward the end, I was involutarily pulling the trigger along with our heroine. Badham may be a soulless mechanic, as his recent pictures "The Hard Way" and "Bird on a Wire" suggest, but he is a mechanic: he knows where to put the camera.

The premise is slick French cynicism at its most amusant. A pack of drug-wasted droogs invades a drug store, shoot it up, then engage in a gunbattle with the cops that leaves several police and all of themselves dead -- except for a scroungy ragamuffin of a young woman, with dead eyes, blackened teeth, the self-esteem of a snail, and so seething with hostilities she's hardly human. Routinely convicted, she seems routinely executed.

Except she wakes up in some secret agent wonderland familiar from the spy spoofs of the '60s and '70s where beautiful young people practice pistol marksmanship, etiquette, computer engineering and tai-kwon-do in service of their country. She's offered a choice: she can join the team and become one of the killer elite or not join and become the actual corpse the legal system had decreed. Is this a choice?

So it's a kind of "My Fair Assassin," in which the street ragamuffin is civilized but her predatory instincts nurtured; she's turned into a sleek beauty with the will and ability to kill. All this the French movie did better. The original actress, Anne Parillaud, was somehow rawer and more animalistic that discreet little Bridget Fonda: she made you feel her feral qualities, her edge. That meant her ultimate transformation into a lady was all the more convincing.

By contrast, Fonda always seems to be faking it. She's dying to get her hair fixed and her teeth cleaned and she only feels comfortable when she's been turned into a lady. That's the real Bridget Fonda. As her two most passionate instructors, Gabriel Byrne and Anne Bancroft aren't nearly as good as Tchecky Caro and Jeanne Moreau in the original. The sexless yet sexually loaded relationship between Caro and Parillaud was much more poignant and erotic than the one between Byrne and Fonda.

The movies seem to also be polar opposites in terms of which parts work best. In the French version, the dynamite start built up a head of steam that took you along but then it lost steam; I remember being disappointed at a pale ending. In the American, the movie seems to take forever to start, and only becomes truly interesting in a last bloody caper, involving penetrating a millionaire arms merchant's mansion to take him down and wipe out his computer system. It helps greatly to bring in Harvey Keitel as "Victor the Cleaner," a thug's thug, to propel the plot more swiftly.

If I were you, here's what I'd do. Wait till it comes out on tape. Then dub the first half of "La Femme Nikita" onto the second half of "Point of No Return." That would have been a thriller to treasure and you wouldn't even notice the switch.

"Point of No Return"

Starring Bridget Fonda and Gabriel Byrne.

Directed by John Badham.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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