The enjoyably preposterous Point of No Return may be the first commercial American movie in which a female action hero gets to blow people away the same way male action heroes do: for the meaningless kinetic thrill of it all. I suppose we should consider this some sort of breakthrough. Excuse me, though, if I can’t work up much enthusiasm for it. As an example of equal opportunity, the kamikaze lady gunslinger — and you can bet we’re going to be seeing many more of them — has emerged from a decadent junk-movie culture that reduces men and women to dashing ciphers leaping mightily through plate glass.
Nevertheless, if Point of No Return is trash, it’s slick, diverting trash. Directed by John Badham in his heavy-duty action mode (Bird on a Wire, The Hard Way), the movie is about a scrungy punk criminal, Maggie (Bridget Fonda), who is reborn as a sleek government assassin. Who does she work for? The CIA — or at least a guy in a black suit who seems to be in the CIA. Who are the people she’s asked to kill? Beats me. And what, exactly, are the consequences of her actions? I have absolutely no idea. Like La Femme Nikita, the 1991 French movie on which it’s based, Point of No Return is an exercise in violent punk chic, a series of empty nihilist gestures posing as a character study. The movie is like an outline for a thriller that was never entirely filled in. Still, it has flash and drive, if only because, like the heroine, we never quite know what’s coming next.
When we first meet Maggie she’s a desperate rag-doll hooligan, her skin turned yellow from heroin withdrawal. At the end of a botched robbery, she sticks her gun into the neck of a police officer and slowly, deliberately squeezes the trigger. It doesn’t take long to see what we’re dealing with: a true untamed heart. Maggie is arrested for murder, convicted, and sentenced to be executed.
The next thing she knows, she’s sitting in a white-walled sci-fi bedroom. Enter Bob (Gabriel Byrne), the guy in black, who speaks in the coded minimalist tones of a bureaucrat privy to information you don’t want to know. Bob has glimpsed Maggie’s ruthless nature, and he likes what he sees. He offers a reprieve: Her sentence will be lifted if she joins his special training program.
It’s exhilarating, at first, to watch Bridget Fonda let loose her aggression; as the amoral Maggie, she lashes out at the world with talons bared. Soon, though, this animalistic rebel is being primped and civilized. Bob’s training bunker resembles nothing so much as a ritzy health club (this makes it doubly surprising that Fonda didn’t pump up for the role), and Maggie is given etiquette lessons by an unctuous Anne Bancroft, who drops chichi howlers like ”You need to find your feminine strength — a bit of moon to go with the sun!”
Dolled up in a bare-shoulder evening dress, Maggie, now strawberry blond and beautiful, goes out with Bob to a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Moments after they’ve been seated, he gives her a present — it’s a box with a really big gun inside — and informs her that she has two minutes to assassinate the VIP who’s dining on the balcony above. She does, in a scene as explosively farfetched as anything in a Lethal Weapon movie. Having passed this test, Maggie is given a new identity and sent to live in Venice, Calif., where she sets up house in a scruffy boardwalk apartment. She meets a photographer named J.P. (Dermot Mulroney, who’s like Matthew Modine’s hangdog brother) and attempts to carry on a ”normal” life. Every so often, though, the phone rings, usually with Bob’s voice on the other end: Go to this location, a weapon is waiting for you, do your stuff.
There’s a strategy, I suppose, to withholding from the audience any real detail about Maggie’s jobs: We’re seeing everything from her restricted, assassin’s-eye view. Yet the effect is rather like that of a James Bond movie without a plot or a villain — or a sense of humor. Point of No Return needs a more extravagant awareness of its own absurdity. The one element in the movie that has this quality is Harvey Keitel’s funny, robotic performance as a nerdish ”cleaner” whose job it is to mop up botched assassinations.
Still, Badham at least tries to give the material an emotional center. And Fonda is far more personable — and vulnerable — than the mannequinesque Anne Parillaud was in Nikita. You root for her, even if it feels like sympathy in a vacuum. In the best scene, Maggie is on vacation in New Orleans when she’s called for a job. Stumbling into her hotel bathroom, she finds her biggest gun yet — you wonder how the skinny Fonda can even lift it — and aims it out the window, as J.P. proposes to her from the other side of the door. Is it any wonder that Maggie wants out? She can still face the killing, but she has lost her freedom, her surly defiance. The message might apply to Bridget Fonda, as well. Much as she may jump at the chance to blow people away, an actress can’t really consider herself liberated in a movie like this one. B-