BD - Image A- Sound B+
DVD - Image B Sound A- (English)/B (French)
starring Anne Parillaud, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Tcheky Karyo, Jeanne Moreau
written and directed by Luc Besson
***/**** Image A Sound B
starring Eric Stoltz, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Julie Delpy, Gary Kemp
written and directed by Roger Avary
by Bill Chambers When DVD screeners of La Femme Nikita and Killing Zoe arrived concurrently in my mailbox, I thought I had an angle for a piece: actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, a co-star in both films. I began taking notes, asking myself how they fit into his oeuvre and whether, viewed in tandem, these actioners represent career progression. That's when I realized: What I know about the work of Jean-Hugues Anglade you could fit on the head of a pin; I've only seen him in one other performance, as Zorg in Betty Blue (a.k.a. 37°2 le matin), a movie with obvious but ultimately superficial parallels to La Femme Nikita. So howzabout this for a thematic compromise? Nikita (its native title) and Killing Zoe each take place in France--that's as good a link between them as Anglade.
But comparing them does reveal uncannier similiraties than that. Nikita is the product of a Francophone filmmaker's Hollywood sensibilities, while Killing Zoe was directed by Roger Avary, a Stateside bohemian using his first taste of indie cred (having collaborated with Quentin Tarantino, eventually to the tune of an Oscar, on Pulp Fiction's screenplay) to mount what is, for all intents and purposes, an arty heist film. Fascinatingly, the sum effects of La Femme Nikita and Killing Zoe are roughly equivalent, like mirror images, and either falls astray in its third act, when Luc Besson and Avary, respectively, must finish what they started.
Nikita, in a wholly redundant turn of events, inspired Point of No Return, a mostly slavish U.S. remake featuring Bridget Fonda as Nikita, a junkie riot grrl converted, "Pygmalion"-style, into a gorgeous professional assassin. In the same role, non-English-speaking Anne Parillaud does it better--the heroine is of a certain Euro-comic super-babe tradition to begin with, and Parillaud looks more authentically conflicted than Fonda perhaps ever could.
Rehabilitated through an espionage-training program after shooting a cop in cold blood, Nikita is unleashed on the world with the understanding that she will occasionally carry out government-ordered assassinations. Which puts a crimp in her romantic life: She must keep new beau Marco (Anglade) in the dark about her profession, and as his feelings for her intensify, so, too, do his suspicions that she's harbouring a thousand secrets. In one peculiarly poignant scene, Marco tries to engage Nikita in a conversation about love and trust while standing outside their bathroom door, and she doesn't respond for fear of breaking her concentration on the sniper sight she has trained on marks across the street.
Alas, my attention never fails to drift from Besson's first international smash once his film detours into James Bond mediocrity. As part of Nikita's training, she is subjected to a life-or-death test in which the only means of escape, a tiny window, has been sealed off by bricks--and in executing Nikita, it's as if Besson encountered a similar dilemma. The 'domestic bliss-hired kill-domestic bliss again' structure could theoretically go on ad infinitum (indeed, the existence of a spin-off TV series would seem to prove this), thus some hard choices, concerning the botched kidnapping of a French ambassador, are imposed on Nikita in the homestretch, and rather clumsily so.
Too many characters are introduced at the last-minute, dividing our loyalties to the protagonist as we waste energy crunching the data on everybody else. And, let's face it, narrative complexity has never been Besson's strong suit; the imprecision of said late-period subplot resists audience engagement for an attention-damaging spell. Although Nikita has difficulty getting back on its feet for the denouement, the final scene is ten times that of Point of No Return's, which appears to have accidentally borrowed its closer from a different French production, Louis Malle's Damage.
Likewise, Killing Zoe climaxes weakly but ends strongly; a lot of American convention screws up the second half of what was, for all intents and purposes, a novel motion picture. Killing Zoe might be referencing Roman Polanski's Frantic during its warm-up shots as we soar, from a passenger's point-of-view, through Paris traffic. (Coincidentally, Besson would open his New York-set The Professional, released the same year as Killing Zoe, in identical fashion.) Eventually, the camera turns around to face Zed (Eric Stoltz), a freshly-landed American tourist. His cab driver offers the services of a prostitute, a lovely blonde waif named Zoe (Julie Delpy) who materializes later that evening at Zed's hotel. The two "Z"s are immediately smitten with each other.
Then Zed's old friend Eric (Anglade) shows up at the hotel and bounces Zoe from the premises. Knowing Eric's mean streak, Zed does not protest, and before long he and Eric descend upon the Paris underground together. Avary is successful at cinematically approximating a drug fugue, employing subtle camera tricks and weird soundtrack cues as Zed trips out on various illegal substances handed him. Then, like Tarantino's From Dusk Till Dawn, the film radically switches gears: The morning after, Zed finds himself involved in a Savings-and-Loan robbery alongside Eric's gang of Besson-esque hoodlums. Little does anybody know that Zoe is a teller there by day, and her endangerment as a hostage--amplified by the film's promissory title--is crosscut with oblivious Zed's progress in cracking the code to a basement vault. That godforsaken chestnut, the bank-job that backfires, is resurrected here--Killing Zoe becomes painfully routine in its dismantling of Eric's plan. The outcome, however, remains in doubt thanks to Avary's crafty plant that Eric is HIV-positive and therefore has a death wish.
Neither Nikita nor Zoe is lacking in imagination, per se: the common flaw between them is that they hit a cul-de-sac at the halfway point and, after much scrambling, only recover in their epilogues. At least they also share uniformly terrific performances, especially from the two title women. (Parillaud won a Cesar, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for Nikita.) Then there's the charismatic Anglade, Nikita's angel and Zoe's devil, an actor who with these two films enjoys a showcase for his range.
Fans, prepare to be slightly dismayed by yet another home-video incarnation of La Femme Nikita. MGM steps up to the plate by delivering its new DVD 16x9-enhanced, but while the aspect ratio is 2.35:1, it is apparently zoomed-in enough to crop vertical and horizontal information. The image is a tad edgy and oversaturated besides, though what really perplexes this time around is the decision to remaster only the hilarious English dub in 5.1 Dolby Digital. I found myself listening to the French Dolby Surround mix when people were talking and the English track when people were shooting--a less-than-ideal scenario. The biggest difference between them is bass, anyway: the English recording contains a whole lot more of it, which hardly matters to the dialogue scenes.
Killing Zoe owes its 16x9-enhanced, 1.85:1 letterboxed transfer to the fans, a vocal bunch when Artisan announced a full-frame release last year. I always thought the unmatted Killing Zoe looked terrible on VHS: dark, muddy, and brown. This disc restores shadow detail to Tom Richmond's cinematography, and Delpy's alabaster skin now stands out nicely from the lurid colours, which no longer bleed. The Dolby Surround sound also strikes me as punchier on DVD than it did on tape, however it's not the orgy of low frequencies and sidewall imaging a modern movie rife with gunfire tends to be. Extras are sparse all around: Nikita comes with a theatrical trailer and an informative collector's booklet; Killing Zoe is an ever-so-slightly meatier package, its booklet and trailer appended by on-screen cast/crew bios and production notes. Originally published: October 2, 2000.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - LA FEMME NIKITA
On its latest stop in a never-ending game of musical chairs, La Femme Nikita lands at Sony, where the perennial makes its Blu-ray debut in an otherwise bare-bones presentation. I was a little worried at the start, since the main titles are so soft and noise-reduced that it scarcely suggests an upgrade from standard definition. But once the movie begins in earnest, the 2.35:1, 1080p transfer--boasting lots more picture info on all four sides as compared to the MGM DVDs--really comes into its own. This is the first time the opening black-light-lit pharmacy robbery has looked legible on home video: gone are the smeary colours, and the sequence is newly alive with detail. Edge-enhancement is meanwhile considerably toned-down from previous releases, if not altogether absent. (Indeed, that's the only thing keeping me from awarding the video an A grade.) The source print itself is cleaner than ever before, flesh tones are more naturalistic, and there's a crisp sheen of grain over the image for proof of celluloid. French and English-dub Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks grace the feature, and while they sound less processed than remixes past, they're also more dated, hemispheric in nature and light on bass. (Because this is always an issue with La Femme Nikita reissues, note that the subtitles are a faithful translation of the original French dialogue.) The definitive version you've been waiting for? Close enough. Trailers for Felon, Resident Evil: Degeneration, The Fall, and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder round out the disc. Originally published: November 17, 2008.