Flashback Fridays: La Femme Nikita

With "Lucy" opening in theaters this week featuring Scarlett Johansson as the latest, hot blonde packing major heat, French director Luc Besson is returning to a specific kind of storytelling that has defined much of his pop action filmmaking career. In 1990 Besson made his breakthrough with the glossy, darkly funny but sharp thriller "La Femme Nikita" (also known simply as "Nikita" depending on the region). It was one of the first truly "cool" foreign films to be released in the emerging, post-Cold War atmosphere of the times. The script by Besson did not contain overt political statements, instead it was about characters who felt real yet inhabited a hyper real world akin to those we find in graphic novels.

The film starred Anne Parillaud as Nikita, a Paris street hood who robs a pharmacy with a gang of fellow delinquents. During the robbery she kills a police officer and is sentenced to life in prison. She is visited by a mysterious man named Bob (Tcheky Karyo) who informs her that she can be redeemed, if she allows herself to be trained by French intelligence (apparently that was some aim she had during the pharmacy run). After a stunning makeover Nikita becomes the perfect, elegant assassin ready to hit the streets and take out targets assigned by her new superiors.

"La Femme Nikita" is classic Besson. It is more about style and look than dialogue or subtext. Along with cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (who would go on to shoot most of Besson's most popular movies), Besson fills every frame with special attention and creates a gritty, early 1990s tone defined by neon graffiti and colorful clothing. He knows how to frame action with elegant, wide shots that contrast sharply to the kind of jerky, choppy style now in vogue in films like "The Bourne Legacy" or "Lone Survivor."

For example, there is a wonderfully stylish scene where Bob takes Nikita out to dinner at a fancy restaurant for her birthday. But what begins as an almost romantic outing turns dangerous when Bob reveals to Nikita that she is actually on her first mission. A gift-wrapped box he handed her earlier actually contains a weapon and ammo. After he leaves her to her duty, Besson lets the camera stay on Nikita as the sheer reality and pressure of her new life sinks in. Parillaud lets her eyes speak with their angst. The scene then evolves into an intense action sequence involving a shoot out in the restaurant pantry.

In stark contrast to the thrillers of recent years, "La Femme Nikita" allows the story to guide the action, not the other way around. Moments of violence build out of the characters' lives. One great section of the film involves Nikita falling in love with and marrying a decent guy named Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade). She of course keeps her job a secret from him, to the point that during their stay at a hotel she secretly tries to carry out an assassination from their hotel room bathroom using a sniper rifle.

Moments like this are tense but also darkly comic. Parillaud always brings a sense of wonderful feistiness to Nikita. She's a goofy street punk who can't help but be silly even after turning into a dangerous, high level assassin.

"La Femme Nikita" also marked the first of Besson's films that would use the action genre to deliver strong, independent female leads. in his films women and men form partnerships of near equality. The men want to protect the women, yet the women can take care of themselves. This was the same role Mila Jovovich would play in Besson's 1997 sci-fi cult classic "The Fifth Element," a grand visual spectacle where Bruce Willis plays a cab driver from the future who must save the world from an evil, asteroid-like menace with the help of Jovovich's character, Leelo, who contains in her a key to unleash the Earth's prime elements.

And perhaps Besson's vision of strong, heroic female characters had no better personification than in his 1999 historical epic "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc." Here he cast Jovovich as the French liberation icon, giving us a strong-willed female mystic leading a nation through war only to be burned at the stake by corrupt, vile powers. In these and others, it is the women who hold the real drive and intelligence needed to survive or win, the men can be clueless and unfair, even when they are the heroes.

Now with "Lucy," Besson returns full circle to the story thread that has sutained much of his best work. In a time when action films lack grace and even classic, pop style and instead hyper macho fantasies like "300" and "Lone Survivor" rule the screen, there is something to appreciate in Besson's fun yet engaging feministic action cinema. "La Femme Nikita" has also aged well, in fact it has aged better than most other films because in this case, its very genre has declined. It still ranks high, but its latest peers refuse to aim higher.