Following on the heels of testosterone-driven John Wick flicks, the ladies have recently taken to flexing their muscles and trigger fingers as well, most notably in Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron and Proud Mary with Taraji P. Henson. Theron and Henson prove that trained assassins (the Feds or the mob) aren’t limited to those with Y chromosomes. If you don’t mind subtitles, 2017’s South Korean film The Villainess features sword-wielding, gun-toting Sook-hee, who puts her American sisters to shame as far as body counts.
These aren’t the only examples of female action heroes, though most have been limited to Super Heroine types, like Wonder Woman and Black Widow, or to sci-fi and video games (Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien films, Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil franchise and Kate Becksinale in Underworld and Tomb Raider). Then there are the (understandably) vengeful chick flicks like I Spit on Your Grave, Ms. 45 and the Kill Bill trio.
Two rather atypical “killer chick” flicks were 1974’s Foxy Brown with Pam Grier, the first African-American female badass, and Haywire (’11) with MMA star Gina Carano kicking asses, another unexpected genre-bender by director Steven Soderbergh, who thrives on being unpredictable. At this year’s Sundance, he said that from now on, he wants to shoot movies only on iPhones, like his upcoming Unsane, dubbed a “horror thriller” with a leading heroine.
I revisited the hi-def release of one of the earliest and best precursors to the new breed, a movie consciously referenced in The Villainess. Debuting almost 30 years ago, La Femme Nikita (Nikita in its native France) promptly spawned a pointless American remake, dully called Point of No Return (with Bridget Fonda), and a popular Canadian TV series, also called La Femme Nikita, which ran for five seasons between ’97-’01.
Though French critics first dismissed the original ’90 action-thriller, it was a popular international hit, making lead Anne Parillaud and writer/director Luc Besson stars. Since Nikita, only his second film, Besson has made a considerable impact in contemporary film with more than 60 projects to his credit in several capacities—writer, producer and/or director.
He’s always had a penchant for over-the-top fantasy and sci-fi, like The Fifth Element, but Besson also helmed popular action thrillers, as writer-director on Leon: The Professional, which helped make Natalie Portman a star, and as writer on the Taken series.
And let’s not overlook The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (’99) with Milla Jovovich as the warrior saint.
La Femme Nikita remains one of his best and, compared to the fantasy ultra-violence of Atomic Blonde, Proud Mary and The Villainess, a credible female action film, its closest competition is Soderbergh’s Haywire.
La Femme Nikita opens with a brutal shoot-out between cops and four junkies. The only surviving junkie is Nikita (Parillaud), a strung-out 19-year-old girl who, in the sequence’s final moments, surprises a young policeman with a bullet to the head. Without an apparent conscience or any remorse, she’s promptly remanded to a secret government organization to be trained as an operative. Her sponsor Bob (Tchéky Karyo), quite a ruthless guy himself, is convinced he can make her into a valuable asset. So does his associate Amande (the great Jeanne Moreau).
Nikita turns from rebellion and truculence to serious commitment when she learns the alternative is her execution. After extensive training, she’s released into society as a kind of sleeper agent.
Nikita finds a new life and love with Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), but it gets increasingly compromised due to her side-job as government assassin, the duties of which she grows to despise. Everything comes to a head when a botched assignment introduces an absolutely ruthless fixer, Victor (Jean Reno), called in to clean up.
Anne Parillaud’s stunning performance conveys a character with real depth and vulnerability, quite different from her successors of women assassins. Besson’s script and direction exhibit unusual restraint, letting the film be a serious drama as well as an exciting thriller.
As a result, La Femme Nikita is quite a superior achievement compared to its many imitators.