Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, which has been playing in France for a year and is now poised for its attack on the American art-film circuit, asks the vital question: What happens when a scuzzy young female thug is captured by the police during an armed robbery, is transformed through several years of intensive training from a tomboy crook into a punky-beautiful government assassin, gets released from jail, falls in love with a romantic supermarket clerk, and finds that committing cleanly anonymous, government sanctioned ''hits'' conflicts with her new domestic life-style? As you may have gathered, La Femme Nikita (it was called simply Nikita in Europe I guess the marketing strategists wanted to make sure we knew it was about a French babe and not some Soviet vodka salesman) is smart enough not to take itself too seriously. It comes on as a character study, but it's really a high-swank action fantasy about a woman who looks like a fashion model and totes a really, really big gun. The movie is the art-house Blue Steel, and it may prove irresistible to women who've spent years watching farfetched male action thrillers and quite understandably want a few to call their own.
There's no denying that Besson has talent, but he's also a flake. Sitting through his earlier, monotonous Subway (1985) and this new, more enjoyable, but still naggingly shallow film, I've sometimes gotten the feeling that he's seen only one movie in his life Jean-Jacques Beineix's smash hit, Diva. Brainy French directors used to be acclaimed for elevating the look and structure of a movie over the content. But Besson's ambitions are frankly commercial. He takes the ''formalist'' noodlings of an earlier generation of filmmakers and turns them into pop hooks, pumping up an absurdist thriller with lots of stylishly abstract atmosphere.
La Femme Nikita, which is like a cross between A Clockwork Orange and John le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl, is structured as a game that caves in on itself. Nikita (Anne Parillaud), in her training, has learned to be both an exacting killer and a seductress the latter under the tutelage of a wizened Jeanne Moreau. Out of prison, Nikita is standing in the checkout line to pay for her canned ravioli when she meets the sly, puppy-dogish Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and falls in love. Their relationship proceeds unfettered, even though Marco has no idea that Nikita is being called upon, every few months or so, to carry out another assassination. Nikita is never told how any of her missions might fit into a larger espionage scheme. She's just a cog in the machine. And since we're as ignorant as she is, the killings play as deadpan comedy. In one of the best sequences, Nikita and Marco are on vacation in Venice when she gets the call. A few minutes later, she's in the bathroom assembling her weapon and poking it out the window at some unfortunate official.
Just when we're starting to think that Nikita's domestic-hit-woman gig looks a little too easy, Besson pulls the rug out from under us. One of the missions goes haywire, and suddenly what had seemed like brusque, fanciful movie violence is shown to have actual consequences. It's a clever gambit, and Besson stages it beautifully. If this director could join his technique to some conviction about what he was doing, he could make a crackerjack movie. As it is, the dissolution of Nikita's comic-strip existence means almost nothing to us emotionally. Anne Parillaud is an exciting presence sexy in a no- nonsense way and she gives a very good performance, making Nikita hard-shelled but never inhumanly tough. She keeps us attuned to every last gradation of fear, distance, control. Yet the character, at the center, remains a punk void. In most movies, that would be a fatal flaw. In Besson's world, it's the ultimate compliment. B