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La Femme Nikita: Special Edition
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
La Femme Nikita is one of my favorite thrillers, and frustratingly, its DVD treatment until now has been sorely lacking. The original Trimark non-anamorphic DVD and the later MGM barebones anamorphic edition had several problems. Primary among those problems were substandard image quality and inaccurate subtitles that were merely a transcription of the English dub job. And, of course, those editions lacked supplemental features, so many of us longed for a proper special edition to be released at some point.
MGM has finally released that special edition, but I have good news, bad news...and heartbreaking news. The good news is about the subtitles. The bad news is about the extras. And the heartbreaking news is about the image quality.
Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita tells the story of the feisty Nikita (Anne Parillaud), a young girl, drug-blasted and lost, facing a hopeless future after a drugstore-robbery debacle. She is animalistic, driven by base desires and sociopathic impulses—so far removed from polite society that she is fearless in the face of her police captors, not caring what her future holds. But someone's got an eye on her. After she's condemned to death for a heinous crime, her death is faked, and she finds herself embarking on a new life subsidized by a hush-hush government program that aims to transform Nikita from street urchin to highly skilled assassin.
That transformation proves to be a difficult process. Nikita's guiding force through her training is Bob (Tcheky Karyo), at once her enemy and her savior. What makes Nikita a special film is the relationship that develops between Nikita and Bob, as they make their way from bitter adversaries to associates to something entirely deeper. When her long training ends, Bob has no choice but to throw her into her new life, without a lifeline, and it's like losing a lover. Although the film changes gears at this point, becoming equally about Nikita's emotional turmoil and about her new professional skills, it remains fascinating and even moving, as we see Nikita finally attempting to embark on a life worth savoring. But are her darker impulses still a factor?
Nikita is a violent film with more on its mind than blood and mayhem—although the blood and mayhem are striking. One of Besson's major themes, throughout his work, is the transformation of a helpless girl into a strong heroine. This was the first film in which he truly delved into that theme, and the result is a surprisingly affecting Pygmalion tale, full of guns and tender emotion, explosions and stabs at love.
Parillaud and Karyo have a wonderful rapport, sparking with tension and unexpressed emotion. Rounding out the fine cast are Jean Reno, in a fabulous turn as "the Cleaner," and Jean-Hughes Anglade as Marco, a young grocery checker that Nikita falls in love with, if only for the quiet, peaceful life he represents. But this is Parillaud's film, and she is a revelation.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Get ready to be disappointed. I was eager to check out the new transfer on this special edition, because the previous two discs looked, frankly, hideous. Even in the previous anamorphic MGM release, edge enhancement was a serious distraction, ringing and shimmering abounded, detail was mediocre, and colors were smeared all over the place. Along horizontal lines, aliasing was huge and severe. Significant grain gave the film an old, dirty appearance. Very ugly.
Although MGM presents La Femme Nikita: Special Edition in a new anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation, the image remains a mess. In all fairness, this transfer is an improvement over what we've seen before. Detail is finer, reaching into backgrounds. Colors are more vivid and more natural, with less smearing. However, I see virtually no improvement in the amount of digital artifacting. Grain remains heavy (although somewhat improved), and edge halos continue to annoy. You get the same hideous ringing, shimmering, and aliasing—adding up to a contrasty digital harshness. Sigh.
This transfer does offer minor improvements—say, from a D grade to a C grade—but this image remains a disappointment. I'm not sure why MGM can't seem to get it right with this film.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (French with English subtitles) sounds full and rich. However, after an A-B comparison with the original MGM release's soundtrack, I come away with only minor differences. The previous release had a surprisingly punchy Dolby Surround track, and although this track offers slightly more ambience in the surround channels and a slightly more spread-open soundstage, the basic nature of the sound is similar. Eric Serra's score is reproduced with verve in both.
The disc also includes the English 5.1 dubbed track from the previous version. In a major bit of good news, this new release appears to have rectified a frustrating subtitle problem in the original MGM release, namely the inclusion of English subtitles that were simply a transcription of the English dub. I'm no French speaker, but an A-B comparison between the two discs shows that the new subtitles are completely different.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
This new special edition offers a few supplemental features, but they're lackluster for several reasons. Foremost, Luc Besson is nowhere to be found among them. I would like to have heard a few words from him, instead of his key players talking endlessly about him.
The Sound of Nikita is a 5-minute featurette focusing on the computer-synthesized music of Eric Serra. We hear from Serra, Tcheky Karyo, and Anne Parillaud, who all comment about the effect of the music in the film. This piece is pretty fluffy.
The 21-minute Revealed: The Making of La Femme Nikita is also surprisingly lightweight. Although it features some mildly interesting talking-head interviews with Jean Reno, Parillaud, Karyo, Anglade, and director of photography Thierry Arbogast, this is the piece that suffers most from the absence of Besson. We hear how Besson wrote the movie specifically for Parillaud, and we hear about the training that Besson put her through, and we hear about how Besson put the movie on hold while he thought up an ending—but where's Besson? A warning: Be sure to watch this piece after watching the feature, because it has a tendency to walk us somewhat obviously through the film's major scenes and themes, like a Cliff's Notes version of Nikita.
Programming Nikita is an almost completely worthless assemblage of tiny talking-head snippets and short scenes from the film. This feature is divided into three sections: Training Room is a 30-second compilation of violent shots introduced confusingly by Karyo; Vanity Room is a 30-second compilation of Nikita shots introduced confusingly by Parillaud; and Bedroom is a 30-second compilation of love scenes introduced confusingly by Parillaud. Waste of time.
You also get a hilarious Poster Gallery that contains elaborate instructions for paging through posters and yet includes only two posters. This made me laugh.
You get a non-anamorphic widescreen Theatrical Trailer, as well as trailers for Other Great MGM Releases, Die Another Day, The Terminator, and Platoon.
Finally, the disc includes an advertised Easter Egg. If an easter egg is advertised, does it remain an easter egg, or is it now a special feature? Hmmmm. This is one of those philosophical questions that we'll ponder for ages. At any rate, this easter egg leads us to another worthless 30-second montage of film clips, introduced by Karyo.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
You probably thought this repurchase was a no-brainer, considering its new transfer and its collection of extras. It's not so cut-and-dry. True, the apparently fixed subtitles may be reason enough to upgrade, but this DVD's image—although somewhat improved—remains substandard, and its supplements are Besson-bereft and fluffy. At least the disc sounds good...but then, so did the original MGM DVD.