A group of junkies have showed up at the chemist shop of the father of one of their number with a plan to break in and steal as many drugs as they possibly can. The son has the keys, but spends so much time trying to locate the right one that the lunkhead wielding the axe smashes the lock with it, oblivious to protests. No matter, as they are now inside, but the chemist has been alerted by the noise and calls the police, then grabs his shotgun and ventures downstairs to confront them. It does not end well when the cops arrive and start shooting down the criminals, but one survives: Nikita (Anne Parillaud)...
Between them, it sometimes seems as if John Woo and Luc Besson created the whole look of nineties action thrillers with their ultra-sylish imagery, designer violence and a finely honed sense of what will get the audience's pulse pounding for those setpiece highlights. Both had been making movies in the eighties, of course, and in Besson's case he embraced the whole "cinema du look" fashion of French cinema, a cool and at times very elegant movement that really only made its international impact with a handful of films, preferably those which could be summed up by a glossy poster to be hung on the walls of the hip and happening.
Indeed, Nikita's poster, with Parillaud in her little black dress grasping a large pistol and taking cover from gunshots emblazoned across it, became as much of an icon as the poster for Betty Blue, but there was a sense among some observers that there was not a lot more to the film than creating a selection of memorable stills with no substance to back them up. It's true that at first glance Nikita appears shallow, but whether you buy into it or not the plot is actually melodramatic enough to be potentially affecting. The point is that the consequences of all those people who die in the film are not legal, but emotional.
So when the heroine shoots a policeman in the chemist's during the gripping opening sequence, it looks as if she will be placed in prison for a very long time, and at this stage she is far from sympathetic, with Parillaud bravely going all out to make us believe there's little hope for redeeming her character. However, the authorities, that kind of top secret authorities who have everyone under surveillance and have wide-ranging powers to do pretty much whatever they want, think differently and note the potential in someone who has already murdered and might be persuaded to do it again. Well, not so much persuaded as ordered.
Nikita's new boss is Bob (Tchécky Karyo) who teaches her to do things his way or else as he whips her into shape, even putting a bullet into her leg when she tries to escape the complex she is being held in. On recovering and learning various skills, including how to scrub up well thanks to Jeanne Moreau's makeup tips, Nikita is ready for her first mission which is sprung on her in the best action of the film: seeing her make her exit after assassinating a V.I.P. sets one up to believe that we are in for a rollercoaster ride. Yet actually nothing that follows matches it, so she undergoes a romance that contrasts with the coldblooded killing she has to carry out, which is nice enough, and Besson knew his way around pleasing the eye with a well-crafted shot, but it means the film is pulling in two directions. He would balance these sides far better in Leon, but Nikita remains worthwhile for its chic. Music by Eric Serra.
[Optimum have released a collection of Besson's films in the Blu-ray format, Nikita being one of them, packed with featurettes and the trailers.]
For all its first-rate action set-pieces, I think this actually plays best as a comedy of manners. Funny really, but this became the summit of Anne Parillaud's career rather than the start of something big. People forget she'd been around for about ten years, often playing Alain Delon's girlfriend in a run of action-thrillers.