Chapter 11: Mister, Is This Heaven Here Or Not?

Overwhelmingly and unanimously, everyone who sent me email from last week voted in favor of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, a 1990 French film whose title means "the woman Nikita", or, more simply and accurately, "Nikita." The name Nikita, interestingly, comes from the Greek "aniketos," meaning "unconquerable"; an apt name for the powerful anti-heroine at the center of the film's action, played by the otherwise unknown Anne Parillaud.

Those who are unfamiliar with Besson's brilliant body of work (which includes Subway, The Big Blue, Leon/The Professional, The Fifth Element and The Messenger) might very well confuse this brilliant film with the more modern, and drastically different, television series of the same name. I'm not a fan of the show, so I'm not qualified to comment on its qualities or lack thereof, but I have seen the film, and I can say that it's hard to image a TV series coming close to the film's overall mood and message.

Attempts have been made; most notably, 1993's disappointing Point of No Return, which starred Bridget Fonda (Singles, Doc Hollywood) in the role of an American Nikita. The film substitutes action for atmosphere, explosions for any real in-depth feeling, and in the end leaves one wondering why director John Badham (Blue Thunder, WarGames, Short Circuit) even bothered to attempt to remake Besson's brilliant Cyberpunk classic.

The film opens as so many Cyberpunk classics do, with a dark city night lit only by neon, reflected in the puddles below, the dark clouds above and the raindrops that surround everyone at all times. Four young street punks enter the scene, three guys and a girl (Nikita), one barechested, one in a trenchcoat, all loaded with the attitude that comes from a live on the streets. As we soon learn, they're breaking into a pharmacy in order to steal drugs; all of them are strung out and looking for a fix, and none moreso than Nikita, who can only mumble "I need it" over and over as the rest break into the building with an axe and begin to fumble around in the dark.

Besson's brilliant use of color in this film becomes apparent almost from the start, shifting back and forth between oversaturated blue and dull, omnipresent scarlet, infra-violet and ultra-red. Here, as the punks search through the pharmacy, everything is blue, a dull, relaxing, non-stressful, semi-depressing blue that no doubt represents their state of mind. Zap, Coyote and Rico have nothing to fear. They are, after all, ransacking Coyote's father's pharmacy. What do they have to fear? And Nikita, obviously doped out on drugs, is so far from caring about anything that she's practically asleep on the floor.

The blue quickly jumps across the spectrum to red as Coyote/Antoine's father wanders into the room with a shotgun, and all hell breaks loose. The police arrive, red lights blazing, and they're armed for bear with submachineguns and sniper rifles. Gun barrels flash fire, blood spatters everywhere as we watch the world through the infrared scope of a police sniper rifle. Rico falls, Coyote falls, Zap falls, and then there's only one left. Nikita.

Slowly, carefully, the police enter the room, now silent, wreathed in blue gunsmoke, dim flashlights illuminating dark, silent bodies. One of the police finds a young girl lying on the floor. He kneels, approaches. It's Nikita. He has no idea she's one of the gangers. He thinks she's a victim. She opens her eyes and looks at him, asks about her friends.

                    None left?


Silently, Nikita brings a pistol up from the darkness and places it against the cop's throat. A moment passes, then two. Then she kills him.

It goes without saying that Nikita is arrested and taken to jail, where it becomes clear that she's a total punk, dirty, filthy and smelly, ragged hair, runny nose and all attitude. Questioned by a patronizing police officer, she first gives her full name as merely Nikita. When her smarmy reply brings a sharp slap, she calmly asks for a pencil to fill out the paperwork before her, then, screaming "My name's cutie!", stabs the officer through his hand. She's quickly brought to trial in chains, where extenuating circumstances are thrown out and she is found guilty of the murder of three police officers, and given a sentence of life imprisonment with no parole for 30 years. A lifetime for a teenaged punk like herself. She freaks out (understandably), screaming obscenities and eventually being wrestled to the floor by no fewer than six police officers. All to no avail... she winds up in prison all the same.

That is where her life ends.

Nikita is not in prison for long when two strangers in lab coats enter her cell with briefcases full of medical equipment. They bring out needles, and she begins to sob. She doesn't want to die. But her pleas fall on deaf ears. They inject her all the same, and her world fades to black.

If Act One was all about the dynamics of red versus blue lighting, the beginning of Act Two is all about black versus white. For Nikita awakens in what seems like a dream, a room of all white. High windows, white bed, white sink, white walls, like a prison except not quite, like death except not quite. And into her world of white walks a man dressed in black. Black on white, the black knight crossing the white queen's square, declaring checkmate.

            Mister, is this heaven here or not?

                        MAN IN BLACK
            No, but it could turn out to be. You
            died Saturday at 5 pm. The prison doctor
            confirmed... suicide after an overdose of
            tranquilizers. You're buried in Maisons-
            Alfort, row 8, plot 30.

Nikita is dead and buried. Legally, anyway. As the man explains (in not so many words), he works for a secret government agency which has decided to give her another chance. They need people who can kill without thought, people who have violent tendencies, people who can do horrible, awful things in service of their government. Secretly, silently, and with no regrets. And if she chooses not to work with them? Row 8, plot 30.

Nikita does not go so quietly into that good night, however, for when the man returns to her cell for an answer an hour later, she ambushes him with a chair, takes his gun, and marches him to the front door. She orders him to open it. He refuses. She orders the other employees to open it. They all refuse. There is no bargaining here. Black and white. Nikita senses this, and threatens to kill him. He calmly informs her that the gun is not loaded, tells her that she needs to cool it. Unwillingly, gradually, he breaks her down, manages to grab the gun from her as she brings it to her mouth, preparing to kill herself. And then, as she falls to the floor, defeated, he turns the gun on her.

                   MAN IN BLACK
            Rule one, the first bullet's not
           for you.

    He shoots her in the leg. She screams.

                    MAN IN BLACK
            That'll clip your wings.

He's calm, playing it cool himself, but he's sweating, shaking. He underestimated her. Something he won't do again. When next he visits her in her room, she concedes and signs his papers. And thus begins her training. First, she learns to use a computer and mouse. Then she's shown to the firing range, where the instructor introduces her to the Beretta 93R, 9mm, 20 rounds. As he explains the weapon, the 19-year old girl picks up the gun and fires at a distant target. Repeatedly. When the instructor brings the target back, there's not much left of it.

            Used one before?

            Never on paper.

Other lessons include martial arts training (where she repeatedly slaps the teacher around) and charm training, where she's gradually turned into a human being, and then a woman, by an elderly female instructor named Amanda who teaches her to be graceful, smile and look pretty. Not because she needs to look weak and feminine, but because that's the way in which she will be able to disarm others, by preying on their sense of compassion for a woman.

Through it all, however, Nikita remains a punk, refusing to give in and be broken. Disturbed that she can't have time off for her 20th birthday, she rebels, giving a live mouse to her computer teacher as a gag gift, biting her martial arts instructor's ear, and spray-painting her small apartment until no trace of white remains.

Once again, into her dirty little world strolls the man in black, who's brought her a birthday cake. Her turns out the lights, plunging her world of color into darkness, allows her to blow out the candles on her cake, and then slices the cake with a switchblade knife. At which point he calmly informs her that if she doesn't improve her attitude, she will be killed in two weeks. And then he leaves the room.

Fast-forward three years. Nikita is getting ready for her 23rd birthday dinner with Bob (the man in black). She's wearing a dress and nice shoes, putting on makeup, finally looking like a woman instead of a young punk. She's given in, been broken, followed their program and Amanda's advice: "There are two things that have no limit: femininity and the means of taking advantage of it." And now she's ready to head out into the world once again.

As Bob and Nikita head out, her world becomes colorized once again; black and white fade, and red and blue enter once again. From calm blue hallway to brightly lit restaurant, all red and gold and glitz. Bob even has a present for her, after they toast with champagne, wrapped in bright gold wrapping paper. She opens it with nervous fingers, excited. Then stops. It's a gun.

            It's loaded. Six titanium bullets
            plus an extra cartridge.

            I don't get it.

            There are 3 people being you. A woman
            and two men in suits. A bodyguard and
            a VIP. You've got 2 bullets to kill
            him. Then go down to the men's room.
            In the end booth there's a small
            window your size. It opens into a
            courtyard. A corridor leads to the
            street. A car's waiting nearby.
            You've 3 minutes. Please wait until
            I leave.

She wants to cry, to give up and scream. She's been betrayed, lied to. But she also has no choice. She's been trained for this. She can do this. And she does. She calmly removes her lily white gloves, takes the gun, loads it, and walks over to kill the VIP and his bodyguard. Only when men with machineguns enter does she show any sign of concern or emotion, and then only momentarily as she runs to the bathroom and heads for the end stall.

The window is bricked over.

For a moment she panics, but then she realizes that she's still alive, can still find another way out. She sneaks into the kitchen, barely survives a shootout with armed guards, and narrowly escapes death as she leaps down a laundry chute as a grenade explodes behind her. (For the record, this entire sequence is done much better than in the Americanized version; if you've not seen Nikita, it's worth it for this scene alone.) Safe and free, she runs on stocking-clad feet down rainy streets, fiery red fading to blue once again as she escapes danger and descends into misery.

She's furious when she returns to headquarters, wet and bedraggled and blue, demanding to be let in to see Bob. When she finds him, she smacks him around, enraged that the window was sealed, that they had intended her to die. But she is quickly brought to realize two things: the window was the final test, to see if she could think for herself; and that she's getting out tomorrow. She's graduated. Free. She kisses him, for the first and the last time. The very next day, she's released into the world with three guns and a code name: Josephine. She's scared and alone, but at least she's free.

Nikita's life is a blur of color as she wraps herself in sensory input, having been deprived of it for so long at the "Academy." She buys the first apartment she looks at, flirts with the first male cashier she talks to at the grocery store, invites him for a dinner which she wolfs down hungrily, and then has him for dessert. Now her world, her apartment, is all done up in red. She's become predator, her apartment a sexual and sensory hunting ground. She's attacking life and enjoying every minute.

Six short months go by and Nikita has almost begun to build herself a reasonable life when the phone call comes for "Josephine." She's given a series of cold instructions, brought to a hotel basement, thrust into the center of a mission with no indication of what she's supposed to do. Bit by bit, the plan unfolds. She puts on a maid's outfit, then waits. Then a phone call comes, and she's given a tray of breakfast food, loaded with surveillance devices. She carries it up to a room, comes back downstairs, and is told to go home.

This scene is one of the areas in which the Americanized (and bastardized) version differs dramatically from the original, for in Point of No Return, the Nikita character has just unwittingly delivered a powerful bomb to a hotel room, which explodes after she leaves the hotel. In the original, however, traditional European understatement makes the scene work much better. Nikita is expecting a bloodbath, and when she's only made to deliver a tray of food, it's almost anti-climactic for her.

And the letdown is exactly why the rest of film feels so good.

Bob calls her from out of the blue, and she invites him over for dinner. He stops over and acts like her uncle for the benefit of her love, Franco, and presents the lovers with a pair of tickets to Venice. Needless to say, they go, not suspecting in the least that when they get to their hotel room, the call from Room Service isn't going to be about the ham they just ordered, but about the sniper rifle hidden in the bathroom.

In a tension-filled scene, Nikita must carefully listen to instructions over a radio headset, build a rifle from its component parts, take aim out a window and assassinate a target, all the while keeping her bewildered and depressed love interest from entering the bathroom. Somehow, she manages to pull it all off, hiding the rifle in the bathtub as Franco bursts in. She knows she's losing him and there's nothing she can do about it.

As always, Bob comes along to try to patch things up, and this time he gives her five months to gather a team and plan her next mission. With five months to think about things, she eases off a little, and starts to rebuild the trust in her relationship with Franco. But bit by bit, it's wearing down. He begins to suspect that she's not working long hours at the hospital, knows that she's out on the streets plotting something... although he doesn't know what. Tension builds and thickens as the colors blur, her job at night becoming tinged with blue light, her increasingly tempestuous relationship coated in red.

Finally, the dam breaks and it all comes crashing down at once. Nikita coaxes her target into an apartment, forces him to drink a drugged beverage so that her companion can disguise himself as the target. But almost immediately the mission goes to hell, as it's discovered that the now unconscious target knows a secret code word that they can no longer retrieve. Should they cancel the mission? No. They continue as best they can. To help out, headquarters is sending in a cleaner.

Victor the cleaner is played in this film by the same man who played Leon the cleaner in the brilliant Leon/The Professional -- Jean Reno (the man for whom both parts were specifically created by director Luc Besson. It's been said that Harvey Keitel, the man who played the same role in Point of No Return, was the best part of that film. But that's like saying that suffocation is the best way to die. The role, and the scene, are done much, much better in the original Nikita.

Victor strolls through two bodyguards like a wraith, magically, invisibly, oozing Combat Sense like sweat, but without breaking a sweat himself. He quickly makes it clear that his title of "cleaner" is one he takes literally when he orders the bodies lying around to be dragged to the bathtub, where he proceeds to douse them with acid. When one of the bodies begins to flop in pain, obviously not dead yet, he calmly pours more acid on them. When Nikita's partner begins to freak out and pulls a gun, Victor shoots him dead and adds the body to the tub. It's a tremendous mess, but Victor is truly a professional throughout. As he says, "I don't stop missions in progress."

After finishing his "cleaning" duties, Victor accompanies the now-disguised Nikita to their final mission locale, where she sneaks inside to photograph some documents with some spy glasses. Outside, Leon is calmly waiting, rolling down his window at one point only to idly shoot a guard and then roll his window back up. Inside, Nikita is in trouble, as she runs into a guard dog that's not fooled by her disguise. She bolts, triggering alarms. Victor is waiting for her outside.

And thus begins the coolest sequence in the film. As Nikita freaks out and jumps in the car, and as armed guards rush up and surround them, Victor calmly turns to them, gun in hand, and in a calm voice says "Nothing's wrong. False alarm. Calm down." And they believe him. And then he kills them all. He manages to shoot four guards before they can react, and then kills the fifth despite being wounded severely. Even dying, he manages to drive through a brick wall to safety, driving until he crashes the car and dies, drives until he can get Nikita to safety.

For Victor, living and dying as an assassin was no problem. But for Nikita, it's not going to work any more. She rushes home and showers off the red blood that's spattered on her, baptizes herself anew, wanders into a blue bedroom and crawls into bed with Franco for her penance. There are tears, there's sex, there's the revelation that Franco has known all along about her true job, and that he never said anything because he loved her. But in the end, she knows she has to leave. She knows she has to leave him. And so she does. Alone in the blue shadows, she makes her decision.

The next morning, Bob arrives with armed operatives and enters Franco's house. Franco chides Bob for being a hypocrite. Bob chides Franco for harboring a fugitive. Franco hands over the embassy photographs to Bob. Bob shows a bit of humanity to Franco. And in the end, both of them realize that they've lost her. And a whole lot more.

                We'll miss her, huh?


Fade to black.

The wonderful thing about Besson's film, as opposed to the TV series and Point of No Return, is that so much is left to the imagination, left unresolved. In the TV series, Nikita stays with the Academy, becomes a willing assassin and participant in their secret operations. In Point of No Return, Nikita never truly becomes the killer they wanted her to be, doing so through veils of love-stricken tears and sappy love montages. But in Besson's original, we never truly get a feel for what Nikita's motivations are. We know she can kill in cold blood, but does she want to? We know she knows love, but she can walk away from it in the end. Black or white, red or blue, yin or yang, what is Nikita? Who does she work for? What does she believe in?

In the end, the answer to those questions is "herself." And in knowing that, we realize that Nikita is the ultimate Cyberpunk. She may not have a chrome arm or a cybernetic eye, but she walks the line between order and anarchy, between street punk and corporate control. And when she comes out the other side, she's nothing but Nikita.

As Nikita comes to a close, so does the first chapter of our larger story; in many ways, 1990 marks the end of Cyberpunk Cinema's first phase. By the early '90s, after all, writers, filmographers and directors (and their respective audiences) had become more familiar with this "new genre" of fiction, and that self-awareness had begun to seep into their works. In a sense, Cyberpunk "sells out," becoming more and more ingrained into society and the media. After 1991, it's difficult to find a Cyberpunk-themed film that isn't intentionally being Cyberpunk. Gibson does a cameo in Wild Palms and writes a script for The X-Files. Time Magazine does a Cyberpunk cover story. Billy Idol does his Cyberpunk album. Neal Stephenson writes Snow Crash, a Cyberpunk masterpiece that is all too aware of what it is and isn't afraid to call it's hero and protagonist "Hiro Protagonist". And Keanu Reeves, of all people, replaces Arnold Schwarzenegger as the most prominent cyberpunk actor around.

But hold on a sec... before we cast Arnold aside, we've got to acknowledge the movie that truly brought Cyberpunk to the mainstream, bigtime. Before Johnny Mnemonic, before The Matrix, there was a little old film called, simply, T-2. A film in which an anti-hero became a hero, a boy became a man, a helpless female became a femme fatale, and we all learned that yes, Virginia, there is a way to do big-budget Cyberpunk. Next week, 1991's blockbuster sequel, Terminator 2.