Nikita Review

It seemed after flirting with action in The Last Battle and Subway that the logical progression of Luc Besson’s career would be into high budget action fare, but The Big Blue threw a big sun-kissed, languid spanner right into the works. Nikita brought things back on track, and finally Besson achieved the success in America that he was seeking with The Big Blue. Anne Parillaud plays Nikita, a detached smackhead who kills a cop in a raid on a drugstore and gets sent down for life without parole for at least 30yrs. She catches the eye of an enigmatic government official known only as Bob, who drafts her into a top secret training scheme to produce state assassins, and over the course of three years they chisel the wild and irrepressible junkie into a sophisticated, elegant secret agent. After graduating from this underground academy, Nikita is given a new identity and let out into the real world to lead a real, independent life while she waits for her first assignment. She starts a whirlwind romance with a gentle supermarket cashier called Marco, but as they’re about to take their relationship to the next level the government assignments start periodically appearing, leading Nikita back into a life of uncertainty and danger.

It’s hard to imagine the impact Nikita had on US action fans back in 1990, it was one of the films that obliterated the established conventions of the 80s of the self-aware, ultra-macho flippant hero and ushered in a new era of internally conflicted, sensitive action leads. The heavy influences on the action sequences from Asian cinema also pre-dated Tarantino and really stood out in a time when Asian “Heroic Bloodshed” gunplays had yet to be exposed to the Western mainstream (that would happen a couple of years later with Hard Boiled). Comic book films were also few and far between back then, which made the comic book “origin story” nature of Nikita’s transformation from wild, untamed junkie to clinical, cultured assassin stand out even more. It was My Fair Lady with guns; Besson even cast an Audrey Hepburn-esque gamine as the lead with Anne Parillaud, and Tchéky Karyo as her effortlessly suave Pygmalion.

There’s a good argument to be made for Nikita as one of the most important action films of the 90s as far as Hollywood is concerned, it’s certainly been mimicked enough – indeed Besson himself revisited a number of its ideas for Léon – but beyond its obvious influence Nikita is simply a good action drama, albeit one that might seem a little less groundbreaking and lazily paced by today’s high-octane standards. There are some great set pieces in Nikita where Besson creates unexpected contexts for action, like the birthday celebration between Bob and Nikita in a swanky French restaurant that is actually a front for her first mission as an assassin, and there’s amusing irony in how Besson bureaucratises the assassin business, with the gunmen at the lowest ebb of the command chain not knowing what is going on with their missions half the time. It’s certainly a far cry from the unemotional automaton assassins that usually inhabit action thrillers.

At the same time there are also the usual narrative weaknesses we find from Besson’s scripts in the middle act. At just under two hours the film feels a good 20 minutes too long, mostly because the love story between Nikita and Marco in the second half is nowhere near as interesting as the unrequited romance between Nikita and Bob in the first half. Besson never satisfyingly conveys the strain that leading a double life takes on Nikita’s relationship, nor is there much action in this double life to make up for the slow drama. Luckily things pick up pace considerably in the closing act when Nikita receives a more involving mission and Jean Reno arrives in an iconic role that injects some much needed life and humour into the film.

The Disc: Presented in 2.35:1 Nikita generally looks slightly better than the previous films in The Luc Besson Collection, but it still falls slightly short of the transfer on the Sony US blu-ray. It’s a solid transfer, the image is generally detailed with close ups showing a pleasing amount of fine detail and a vibrant colour scheme that remains bold and expressive without losing the gritty feel of Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography. Skintones are a little pale and contrast/brightness levels appear high, with whites regularly blooming. Black levels are solid and consistent, although blacks do appear slightly crushed, but shadow detail is good. Grain is kept to a light, fuzzy layer that deepens in darker scenes, but the texture of the grain is compromised by the low bit rate of the AVC encode - which averages out at 20.23Mbps - resulting in blocking. Edge Enhancements can also be seen from time to time. In comparison to the US BD the Optimum disc is a touch brighter and a tiny bit softer, with grain in particular being much sharper and better defined on the US release. Colours are also slightly less saturated on the Optimum release.

Audio comes in the form of a French LPCM 2.0 track which offers a solid, no-thrills audio presentation. Again we’re seeing a slight increase in clarity over the previous films in the Luc Besson Collection; in general Nikita sounds clean and pretty smooth as far as treble response is concerned. Bass levels are pretty solid and add depth to the dialogue and score, but the various gun shootouts in Nikita have the kind of sound design you can expect from a bunch of Frenchmen who don’t have a habit of shooting guns off, so the gunshots hardly sound like the weapons that are actually in use, with handguns sounding more like elephant guns. With this in mind the bass in the action sequences is too booming and too hollow and does pull you out of the film a little. Other than that niggling point audio is hard to fault, sound dynamics are strong and the soundstage is ok, but perhaps not as expressive or enveloping as fans will expect (especially in the rears). The Sony BD comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix which may be an important selling point for fans, but I don’t think you’re being too short changed by this LPCM track, the film was originally shown in Dolby Stereo SR afterall. Optional subtitles are provided in English, and I can confirm that they are not dubtitles.

The only two substantial extra features come courtesy of the MGM R1 Special Edition DVD, the first is a 20-minute Making Of featurette which is a retrospective talking heads piece with the main cast that is rendered rather pointless by the fact that they mostly stick to explaining this completely uncomplicated film. The Sound of Nikita is a 5-minute interview with Eric Serra on the film’s sound; it’s more involving than the Making Of, but far too short to offer much. Aside from the theatrical trailer the other extras on this disc seem to be all new featurettes, but are in reality just incomprehensible 33-second snippets that were left out of the Making Of featurette. It appears they exist purely to give the impression of a longer list of extra features.

Last updated: 18/04/2018 18:58:44

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