DVD Review: La Femme Nikita/La Femme Nikita
By Glenn Abel
It sounds about as appealing as reheated Freedom Fries:
Take a stylish and influential action film by a top French director. Remove all
things French -- except for the title. Transform lead character from cold-
blooded killer to spunky innocent. Pump up babe and hunk factor. Add stock
characters such as computer whiz kid. Boil it all down to an hour and serve
weekly on U.S. cable for five years. Mon dieu!
But things are never as they seem in the shadowy world of "La Femme Nikita." The TV series was, in fact, ahead of its time and far better than it had to be, building a loyal and highly interactive fan base during its 1997-2001 run on USA Network. Warner Home Video delivers the evidence in "La Femme Nikita: The Complete First Season," a slick and sexy six-disc set (retail $98.99).
Warner faces a hard sell to admirers of Luc Besson's 1990 film, many of them still traumatized by a lame U.S. feature remake starring Bridget Fonda. That's a shame, because the TV series qualifies at the least as a guilty pleasure. But the "Nikita" hardcore can celebrate MGM Home Entertainment's rerelease of the film, a single-disc affair (retail $24.98) that should erase memories of the title's sorry DVD debut in 2000.
TV series creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran say they brought much of what they learned on the show to their current project, the critical favorite "24." Inspiration for the paranoia-fueled "Nikita" came from the '60s cult series "The Prisoner," not Besson's film, they say.
"We took the 'Nikita' story, but then we turned it into its own animal," says John Cassar, who directed the first show. "As the year went on, we pulled further and further from the film." Besson's Nikita, a murderous junkie forced into service as a government assassin, was re-imagined as a decent street person wrongly blamed for a killing.
"We felt on television we can't have a heroine who's a cold-blooded killer for real, so we framed her," Cochran says on the commentary for episode 1. "Now, several years later, TV may have a different attitude toward heroes." Nonetheless, Nikita made her first kill 40 minutes into the first show.
The co-creators take a lot of pride in bringing a butt-kicking woman to the small screen. In the mid-'90s, "there were no female (action) leads on TV," Surnow says. "It was a radical idea."
Almost 300 women read for the part, but Cochran and Surnow had found their Nikita right away in Peta Wilson, an athletic Australian with almost no TV experience. (The striking blonde "didn't feel like an Aaron Spelling girl," Cassar says.) Wilson's background as a model came in handy for the show's cavalcade of hairstyles and hipster-black fashions.
Wilson was teamed up with Canadian Roy Dupuis, who played Nikita's spyguy handler. The "deep, dark and sexual" chemisty between Nikita and the spook became the show's tease and hook. "The Roy and Peta relationship was the whole thing," Surnow admits. Fans were given an itch they couldn't scratch, at least in season 1.
The series began its run just as the World Wide Web took off. Surnow and his team pored over printouts of fans' Internet posts, incorporating some of their ideas. "It was a great synergy," Surnow says.
The show was shot in Toronto, a city whose TV production credits pretty much began and ended with "Kung Fu." Toronto, largely unseen on U.S. television, stood in for the host of European locations that helped sell the show overseas. The first year, cast and crew bonded during one of the coldest winters on record.
Terrorism provided many of the plots. "In 1995, terrorism was out of sight, out of mind (in the United States)," Surnow says. "Anything went." The chief bad guys were Gordon Gekko clones, often with a thing for Nikita. Humor was in short supply; endings were rarely happy. At a time when the networks shied away from action, "La Femme Nikita" was into torture scenes.
The show's look came more from John Woo than Besson -- slow-motion violence and clandestine doings in shadows and dramatic lighting. Close-ups tended toward the extreme, the better to catch all those meaningful glances. On DVD, the visuals look fine, with limited grain and lots of cool colors on the old-school computer screens.
The soundtrack -- full of under-the-radar indie music collected by Blaine Johnson -- has aged well. Composer Sean Callery's work anticipated the rise of techno. "There was a real 'Nikita' sound as well as a 'Nikita' look," Cassar says. The DVD's audio proves lively, with the stereo mix capably delivering the beeps, chirps and booms.
Surnow, Cochran and Cassar have a good time providing gang commentary for the first episode, at one point admitting the show was "way over the top." Surnow goes it alone on the set's other talk, for the season finale. A new making-of checks in with the actors, who don't have a lot to add, but the featurette will be fun for fans. There are nine "cancelled scenes" (show lingo for scenes that were killed).
MGM's first DVD version of the film "La Femme Nikita" failed director Besson miserably, with visuals just a step up from the VHS. The new special edition DVD looks a lot better, although some digital artifacts remain. Flesh tones seem true and the handsome French interiors get back their luster. Audio wasn't bad on the first disc, and sounds about the same on the new DVD. The film comes widescreen only (2.35:1), with the 16x9 enhancement.
Extras won't blow away many viewers. A new 20- minute featurette interviews key actors, not Besson. The director's music man, Eric Serra, has his say on an interesting short, "The Sound of 'Nikita.' " An easter egg reveals one of Besson's working methods.
Ann Parillaud, who played Nikita, looks a lot more relaxed these days. The actress recalls training with weapons and martial arts for a year before filming. She found karate "violent, painful and scary," but became obsessed with the firearms, insisting on using real weapons during filming, despite their weight. She spent 24 hours in jail after police found her driving around with a gun she used to build up her arm muscles. The weapons "were getting too much in my head," she remembers.
Nikita was "a kind of wounded animal," the seemingly easy-going Parillaud says. "She was more than my sister, she was my twin."
Jean Reno, who went on to international stardom, says he played his ultra-cool Victor the Cleaner character without reading the script -- Besson had the actor stroll right into his terrific first scene. Reno notes that Besson is his own cameraman, so "he's the first guy you have your eyes on" while acting.
Besson halted filming for 10 days while he tried to come up with an ending, Reno says. One script had Nikita taking her revenge, blowing up the spy ministry that controlled her. Besson finally settled on a quiet scene in which Nikita's boyfriend and her handler speak of their mutual love for the reluctant assassin, who has moved on to presumably safer life.
Jean-Hugues Anglade, who played the boyfriend, says "it's part of Besson's talent" that he knew cinema of the '90s was ready for a stylish action heroine.
"I think that maybe Nikita is Luc Besson as well," Anglade speculates.
The DVD includes a pointless "interactive map" that explores Nikita's habitats via clips. A goofy trailer and a poster gallery complete the package.
Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter
Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter
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