We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of this blog (and I’ll have a major Best of Year One list that covers all of the media I’ve worked on for this blog during that time. Should be fun), and it’s given me some interesting perspective on the many paths my movie-watching has taken me over these last 365 days. The first two French films I watched for this blog (if you don’t count Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress which was French-produced but essentially a Chinese film) were turgid and slow affairs that either didn’t live up to their own thematic potential (Belle de Jour) or nearly incomprehensible for possible cultural reasons (La Ceremonie). I haven’t actually seen many French films for this blog, but the next two I watched proceeded to either completely wow me or at least be very good if not great. Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien remains one of the best WWII films I’ve reviewed thus far, and Monsieur Ibrahim was a quiet and sentimental film that turned out to be quite a tear-jerker. Well, god bless Luc Besson for keeping up the streak of high quality French films (and foreign films in general) that I’ve been on with his marvelous study of violence, loyalty, love, and penance, the remarkable 1990 original version of La Femme Nikita.

La Femme Nikita is the tale of a young, drug-addicted French woman (whose real name may or may not be Nikita played by the marvelous Anne Parillaud) who murders a cop when the robbery of a pharmacy with her junkie friends ends in a shoot-out with the police. Sentenced to life in prison with virtually no possibility of parole, Nikita is forcibly entered into a secret government agency to be trained as a top-level assassin for the French government. Her death in her old prison is faked and all ties with her old world are cut off. Nikita was chosen because of her almost psychotic fieriness and natural toughness and she’s a natural fit for the violent world of espionage and assassinations. Though she initially rebels against the life she’s forced into, she eventually complies and over the course of the film carries out several missions that take increasing tolls on her sanity and happiness. When she is sent on a mission to a remote part of France and falls in love with a local clerk, her newfound love and bliss is instantly put at risk by the dangerous other life she inhabits.

Anne Parrillaud was such a natural and instantly riveting talent that I have trouble believing that she wasn’t the primary influence of all of the other action heroines to come over the last two decades. Before Lisbeth Salander was investigating Nazis and torturing rapists, before the Bride was slicing and dicing her way through hordes of Yakuza, and before Sidney Bristow walked the tight-rope of being a CIA double agent, you had Nikita. Her transformation over the course of this film simply has to be seen to be believed. When we first meet Nikita, she’s a drugged-out junkie without even a hint of femininity or grace. By the time she leaves her assassin training program, she’s a knock-out beauty that knows how to use her wiles to get what she needs. On that same note, Parrillaud is able to flip between an almost feral aggression and anger (that I’ve only ever seen matched by Rooney Mara) to a wrenching vulnerability. This was a complex and dynamic role and Parrillaud stepped up to bat and hit a home run.

What separates La Femme Nikita from other hyper-violent action films (this may seem tame by today’s standards, but when it was released, it was shockingly violent) is the emphasis it places on story and character development. This isn’t a series of action sequences supported by a bare-bones excuse plot and forgettable characters. Rather the action serves to complement and enhance the running narrative which is Nikita’s journey from complete destitution to something akin to an empowered female force (although with plenty of commentaries on how her power is still being manipulated by the state). It is a tragic film and the violence is never glorified but rather shown in some gritty and harsh light. Feeling emotionally connected to characters in an action film is always an impressive feat, and La Femme Nikita is able to achieve that not just with Nikita but also with her fiancee and other smaller characters. Any complaints some people might have that the film runs a tad too long seem to not get how much emphasis this film places on putting the audience squarely in this world and achieving complete empathy with its heroes and villains (and it’s hard to tell who’s who).

This is the thinking man’s action film (along with Besson’s later film The Professional). For every intellectual out there who wants an action movie you can enjoy without feeling guilty, it’s right here. And even for those who don’t feel guilty about their action viewing pleasures, well, I still recommend La Femme Nikita because it’s simply better than 99% of the action films out there. I’ve loved both Besson films I’ve seen now, and I’m really curious to see what the rest of his library of movies feels like because he’s really solidified himself to me as one of the top-tier action directors out there. As long as you can enjoy films with subtitles, La Femme Nikita is must see.

Final Score: A-