La Femme Nikita ★★★★★

I originally downloaded this as part of "Cinema Du Look" week of the 2017 Film School Dropouts challenge, but didn't get around to watching it until this month. For those who don't know, "Cinema Du Look" was a minor movement in French cinema in the 1990s, in which a series of young intellectuals enfolded the visual language of Hollywood actioners into their small-budgeted indie character dramas; it was considered shocking and daring at the time, which is why these filmmakers were given a collective name to begin with, until it became clear a few years later that they were simply a bunch of European nerds who all wanted to be the next Quentin Tarantino, which wasn't clear before because they were all making their first films at the same exact time that Tarantino himself was making his own first films. (In fact, upon hindsight, you can add the Hong Kong directors like John Woo who were influencing Tarantino, as well as British directors like Guy Ritchie, and call the whole thing a truly global version of "Cinema Du Look" that all happened at the same time, although of course we now refer to these collective films by the more familiar term "Tarantinoesque.")

La Femme Nikita was the first big breakthrough hit of the now Hollywood veteran Luc Besson, and fits into the "Cinema Du Look" niche like a hand into a glove; made just two years before Tarantino's debut Reservoir Dogs, it's a stunning look at just how action-packed a movie you can make for eight million dollars if you're smart about all the details of your production. At its heart is an extremely clever script, the thing that gives this movie such lasting power (and the thing unfortunately missing from nearly every other Besson film he's made since): starting with the arrest, conviction and death sentence of a rebellious '80s punk-rocker drug addict with no family, who killed a convenience store clerk while high one night, we quickly learn that her execution has been faked so to instead be involuntarily recruited as a black-ops assassin for the French version of the CIA, with the first half of the film tracing her journey into sexy, sophisticated super-spy, and the second half looking at her troubled life afterwards (where among other smart flourishes, Besson single-handedly invents the concept of a "cleaner," a person who specifically comes in after crimes to dispose of dead bodies, which has gone on to become an oft-repeated staple of the entire Tarantinoesque genre).

Unfortunately for all of us, Besson has degenerated over the 28 years since into big, dumb, openly racist snoozers like the Taxi, Transporter, and Taken series; but here in this early hit he is a revelation, an infinitely innovative filmmaker who never takes his audience for granted, and who you can tell is passionately invested in earning every new fan he made with this major step up from his career start. (He actually directed three other features before this one, but all were tiny productions that barely received any attention.) I'm actually much more familiar with the shot-for-shot American remake, Point of No Return, because of having a major crush on Bridget Fonda in my twenties and hence watching the film on VHS approximately one billion times; but since they are literally the same movie, only one in English and one in French, either one will do, plus you get bonus points at dinner parties for being familiar with the Besson original. A movie that still holds up incredibly well almost 30 years later, it's a testament to how exciting a filmmaker Besson was at the start of his career, as well as a testament to how far he's fallen as he's gotten progressively older, richer and lazier; but don't let his recent crap stop you from seeing this exciting, gripping early hit, one of the titles from those years that inspired the term "Cinema Du Look" in the first place.