This Canadian TV series is a spinoff from Luc Besson’s international hit thriller, Nikita (aka: La Femme Nikita, 1990), later remade by John Badham for subtitle-illiterate American audiences as, The Assassin (aka: Point Of No Return, 1993). There have been several Asian movie rip-offs and ‘girls with guns’ thrillers produced since Besson’s original classic, including Black Cat (1991) and Prisoner Maria (1995). So it’s to be expected that this cultworthy small screen drama draws on all these sources and yet, because the heroine (played by Peta Wilson, recently the leading lady in Stephen Norrington’s fantasy adventure blockbuster The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is a spy for a top secret government agency rather than an assassin for the state, La Femme Nikita seems more like a low-budget precursor to superior espionage adventure Alias (2002), than a faithful TV adaptation of the two movies about a female killer.
That’s not to say this series lacks impact or interest to fans of Besson’s picture, or the Americanised version. Unlike willowy punk chick Anne Parillaud (Nikita), petite wild child Bridget Fonda (The Assassin) or the sensual Jade Leung (Black Cat), athletic blonde Peta Wilson has the stature to look really capable of beating up her male opponents in the numerous fight scenes, though I’m not quite sure if the pigtailed hairstyle really suits this action girl role.
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La Femme Nikita skips the obvious allusions to Pygmalion explored in both movie versions and rewrites the plot with an important change to the heroine’s character. Here, Nikita is innocent of the murder that results in a faked ‘death sentence’ and so, in the pilot episode, viewers may sympathise fully with her fearful reaction when she gets conscripted into covert organisation, Section One, who train her to kill enemies of the state in cold blood.
The first episode, simply titled Nikita, replays the memorable dinner-date with her mentor – from the Besson and Badham movies – which becomes Nikita’s trial-by-gunfire when she’s handed an automatic weapon in a restaurant, and ordered to complete a dangerous mission. In particular, this sequence repeats the movies’ blocked escape route surprise and the desperate shootout in the kitchens, almost frame for frame. Oddly enough, the two movies’ other notably high-tension scene (while away from home, on a romantic trip with her boyfriend, Nikita is ordered to shoot a target from the window of a hotel bathroom) re-enacted for this show, doesn’t occur until episode ten.
What makes this a clear prototype for Alias is the close-knit ‘spy team’ of Section One (which is mirrored by ‘SD-6’ in the series starring Jennifer Garner). The supporting characters of field agent Michael (Roy Dupuis) and the Section’s ruthless leader ‘Operations’ (Eugene Robert Glazer) have their opposites in Alias, and it’s only the inclusion of another female operative, interrogation expert and psych profiler Madeline (mature redhead Alberta Watson), calmly subverting the more womanly and ladylike role of Amanda (played by Jeanne Moreau and Anne Bancroft in the French and US films, respectively), that properly distinguishes La Femme Nikita from its imitator. These differences, and the moral predicaments that Nikita has to face throughout this first season, ensure that La Femme Nikita is almost as entertaining, in its own way, as Alias.
Interestingly, Nikita is a more isolated heroine than Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow in Alias. Because she’s an ex-convict who’s officially dead (and not a just a double-agent, like Sydney in Alias), Nikita’s social life outside of Section One is non-existent. Although Nikita manages to befriend her neighbour, Carla (Anais Granofsky) and eventually gets involved with an architect named Gray Wellman (Callum Keith Rennie, from the second series of Due South), there’s no privacy at her flat, and telephone calls that summon the codenamed ‘Josephine’ for Section work always come at the most inopportune moments.
Second episode, Friend, is directed with assurance by Guy Magar (Retribution, 1988, Stepfather III, 1992, Children Of The Corn: Revelation, 2002) and tells of how Nikita is tricked into helping Julie (Marnie McPhail), who claims they went to school together, avoid the lethal attention of Section security, only to discover that seemingly helpless Julie is actually working for a terrorist’s group. Directed by Kari Skogland (Zebra Lounge, Riverworld), Charity guest stars British actor Simon MacCorkindale (star of the awful superhero TV series Manimal, 1983), playing a philanthropist with a dark criminal secret. In Love, Nikita is teamed with Michael for an undercover mission, where they play a mercenary couple hired by crooked arms dealer (Tobin Bell, who later appeared in the second season of 24). Rescue has Nikita and Madeline travel to Russia, posing as sales reps, to save the injured Michael from capture by local police. In Recruit, one of two episodes directed by TV veteran Reza Badiyi, Nikita has to assess Section One trainee Karen (Felicity Waterman, who narrowly missed the lead role in this show!), but finds that deciding another operative’s fate is no easy task.
Gambit is perhaps the finest episode of season one. It guest stars Harris Yulin (Clear And Present Danger, 1994… and recently, traitorous Roger Stanton in the sequel series of 24), as a psychopathic terrorist who foils the Section’s attempt to interrogate him in an effort to trace a cache of stolen nuclear material. The clever balancing of psychological tension, action scenes shot on Toronto locations, and revelations about the supporting characters make this fascinating entertainment. Obsessed and War are similarly themed but standalone episodes concerning the theft of vital data which threatens a network of overseas spies and secret agents. Voices introduces a wholly humorous gimmick to the show, in the form of ‘Devo’ male and female “torture twins,” the almost silent couple who are able to extract needed info from prisoners by unknown (off-screen) yet infallible means, leaving only little red lines under their victims’ eyes. Presumably, this involves an innovative interrogation technique that may be revealed in a future story.
Brainwash is the most overtly science fictional episode so far, and sees Nikita volunteer to test a VR device only to find herself being programmed to assassinate a foreign visitor that Section One are assigned to protect. In season finale, Mercy, Nikita’s continuing rebellion against the strict rules of Section ‘ops’ finds her being targeted for termination by her colleagues, during their risky mission to secure a young inventor’s new kind of explosive material. However, needless to say, Nikita evades death and manages to escape from Section One’s control…
As demonstrated by this opening season, La Femme Nikita is a lively, intriguing and potentially exciting TV action series. Since first being aired on Warner in US, and Channel Five in the UK, the show ran for nearly five years (a healthy total of 96 episodes) until it was cancelled in March 2001.
Bonus assignments (study them all carefully!) on this DVD boxset: a making-of featurette (12 minutes), nine deleted scenes, plus commentary tracks on the first and last episodes.