Something one cannot help but notice by the time they have written a few hundred movie reviews is just how chronically skewed cinema is when it comes to gender representation. It’s not hard to see for oneself: just list the top 6-10 speaking parts of any movie and see how many of them are women. Then, see how many of the top speaking part are women. The numbers do not speak to anything close to equality. And that is even moreso in the action genre, which is really, really male-dominated. And the women who are in such films often are relegated to non-heroic support roles, perhaps also as a love interest and/or a damsel to be rescued. So when a slick French assassin thriller called La Femme Nikita landed in 1990 about a young woman who is transformed into a lethal government spy, it was impossible to ignore.
Also impossible to ignore has been director Luc Besson’s increasingly predatory behavior with his female actors—whom he tends to date or marry, run them through the production of his next movie, and then dump once somebody new walks on the set. One of his first public relationships as a director was when he, at more than 30 years old, dated an actor who was only 15 (and whom he met when she was only 12). A year later she would have his child—which in France was not against the law, as those under 18 are minors, but the age of consent is only 15. Since 2018, Besson has faced various sexual assault and misconduct allegations from at least eight other women.
All of that casts quite a difficult shadow over La Femme Nikita, which purely on the grounds of action cinema is a really fun movie.
The story takes place in France, where a teen-aged drug addict with a death with named Nikita is apprehended by the police after a drug store robbery turns into a fatal shootout with the cops. Convicted for murder, Nikita is executed by the state…until she wakes up in a strange facility somewhere and is told by a suit named Bob that officially, she no longer exists. But as someone with promising skills for violence, and who is the possession of the government, she will undergo extensive training to become a covert assassin. Nikita tries to resist, but goes with the program soon enough, transforming from burnout to black ops superstar. She is set loose in a world she really doesn’t understand, where she bides her time until the government calls her up out of the blue with her next assignment. All this would be fine, except for her blossoming romance with a civilian named Marco who is unaware of who Nikita really is or what she does for a living. As Nikita’s professional obligations become ever more complex and dangerous, she must weigh duty versus love and figure out which one is least likely to get her killed.
La Femme Nikita would be the beginning for a string of super-stylish, hard-hitting action movies from Besson, whose eye for kinetic energy and sense for style over substance created a kind of Gallic comic-book formula that translated better for American audiences than it did French ones. And to be fair, the story isn’t particularly deep: a broken nobody gets turned into a superspy somebody, learns that life behind the trigger isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be and realizes that getting out probably means going feet first.
The thing is, the movie isn’t meant to hit us with particularly deep characters or story; it’s really a delivery mechanism for cheap thrills dressed up to be as cool as possible. And on that front, Nikita very much delivers. The opening shootout that lands Nikita in trouble with the government is way more interesting and involved than it really ought to be. Her training sequences are a blast to behold. Her inaugural hit job is a four-minute case study in why bringing a shootout into a hotel kitchen is never safe for the characters but fun for the audience. But it is also a kind of thesis statement for the sort of flourishes Besson will go to again and again, namely little peeks of humanity that normally never get a frame’s worth of attention in other action films. The movie makes of point of showing people reloading, even though it goes against action movie orthodoxy. Fight scenes ebb and flow to underscore their uncertain outcome, rather than blasting through in linear fashion. They feature minor characters whose obvious fear and uncertainty reminds us that even the unnamed mooks in this story have something to lose. After all, those anonymous thugs we see in action films took their job for a reason, right?
The moment of truth, however, involves Nikita’s increasingly impossible romance with Marco, and how it parallels her increasingly unsurvivable job as a hit woman. There comes a point where Nikita observes something she cannot un-see, and from then on, her escape from her double-life isn’t so much a matter of romantic preference but one of survival. It all sets us up for a fairly satisfying ending, but in hindsight, given the kind of behavior Besson would exhibit behind the camera with his female leads, one can’t help but think that Nikita’s decision to get the hell out of a toxic relationship with her manipulative and uncaring boss is some kind of Freudian transference captured on film. It sure feels like it.
It’s difficult to separate art from its artist, and to some degree art really should be judged on its own merits—how well was it executed, how much did it compel the audience, how much did it dispel our disbelief. But sometimes, we have an obligation not to. La Femme Nikita is a great action movie. It was not made by a great person. And however much we want to like this movie, there are deeply problematic fingerprints all over it, there for anyone to see if they just paused to look.