Director Luc Besson has often been derided for his supposed emphasis on style over substance. It's certainly true that Besson is one of the more visually spectacular directors working, which he has proven over and over again in such opulent productions as The Fifth Element. However, I personally think the oft-repeated slam is just a little off the mark; I instead frequently find Besson trying too much to inject substance into idioms that are by their very nature flashy, stylistic fare, and that sometimes uneasy attempt is nowhere more evident than in his 1990 action spy thriller, Nikita (incorrectly labeled La Femme Nikita, I guess to make sure everyone understands its heroine is female).
Nikita's setup is extremely simple, probably one of the reasons it's inspired actual knockoffs (as in the U.S. version starring Bridget Fonda, as well as the television series with Peta Wilson), as well as other efforts that owe it more than a passing tip of the hat (as in Jennifer Garner's Alias). The film starts with a bunch of drugged out youth robbing a pharmacy for a quick fix, a robbery that quickly goes awry, leaving Nikita as the only survivor. Through a quick series of intervening events, where her rampant viciousness is shown quite graphically, she's secreted away to a hush-hush French spy organization where she's trained as an assassin. The rest of the film depicts several capers she's involved in, some of them staged with some of the most visceral action sequences in recent film memory, while also showing the personal effects the killer's lifestyle has on the young woman.
Where Nikita falters a bit is in this very attempt to humanize Nikita and delve into her deep emotional wells. Anne Parillaud (the ex-Mrs. Besson) has a tough road to hoe here and does her best in the early scenes, where Nikita is basically a catatonic pit bull waiting to attack. Parillaud is somewhat less successful in depicting Nikita's makeover as a chic, supposedly Audrey Hepburn-esque seductress who mingles with the elegant set in haute couture while briefly excusing herself to go shoot somebody. Parillaud is hampered by a screenplay that never fully explicates Nikita's backstory, and which relegates the current state of the character into a weird sort of manic-depression where she's alternately jumping for joy on a Venice hotel room's bed, or breaking down in hysterical crying fits when a botched hit devolves into burning bodies with sulphuric acid in a bathtub. Because there's no real baseline of "normalcy" here, it deprives Nikita the character and Nikita the film from a stable perspective that would allow some of its emotional elements to really reach out and touch the audience. Too often Parillaud's Nikita seems like a grown-up version of Gilda Radner's politically incorrect yet undeniably hilarious autistic child character, Colleen.
That said, this is a killer (pun intended) action film, with some outlandish caper scenes that show off Besson's directorial skill to an impressive degree. Besson's wonderful fast tracking shots through various obstacle courses like a crowded restaurant are a brilliant example of overwhelming technique. However, it's to Besson's credit that these moments are never showy for showiness' sake, but seem to spring organically out of the action at hand.
Nikita benefits immensely from a host of fine supporting performances, including Tchéky Karyo as the hardnosed but ultimately nurturing government official who takes Nikita in and teaches her the assassin's way with some literal tough love. Also impressive are the legendary Jeanne Moreau as Nikita's makeover artist and Jean-Hugues Anglade as her boyfriend after Nikita is released out into the "real world." The wonderful Jean Reno steals the last part of the film as Viktor, a "cleaner" brought in to help minimize the effects of an embassy caper gone awry. Reno's coolness in these scenes is a welcome antidote to Parillaud's increasing hysteria as the film winds to a somewhat deflated conclusion.
Nikita may well have been more impactful had it relied less on supposedly caring so much about its heroine, a care that is never supported with enough real character information about the woman to elicit a real heartfelt response from the audience. As it stands, the film is a knockout action thriller with a fascinating premise. It plays almost like a live action anime at times, with a hyperbolic style that is always fun to watch and which delivers some fantastically impressive action sequences. If Nikita the character seems lost at sea in her newfound world, Besson charts an exemplary course for Nikita the film, at least in its thriller elements. Just don't expect to feel much along the way.