*. Being labeled as one of the biggest box office bombs ever is tough to live down, but it can be misleading. Not every bomb (or expensive flop) is a bad movie, and given the vagaries of Hollywood accounting defining the actual extent of the financial damage can be difficult.
*. Enter The 13th Warrior, which is usually regarded as having been a bomb but which is an entirely watchable if not great movie and whose balance sheet may not have been as grim as it is sometimes made out to be.
*. It must have seemed like a winner on paper. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (Eaters of the Dead, which was also the film’s original title) and directed by John (Predator, Die Hard) McTiernan. But for whatever reason the initial test audiences weren’t enthusiastic and there followed a lengthy process of re-shoots (directed by Crichton), editing, and even the writing of a new score. All this extra work is usually blamed for the overruns, though there’s wide disagreement about how much the film ultimately cost.
*. Once you step away from this industry inside-baseball analysis, however, I don’t think it’s that bad a movie. The basic idea is fascinating, and effectively presented. Basically Crichton took the Old English poem Beowulf and re-imagined a real story that might have given birth to the legend. So Grendel becomes the Wendol, a tribe of primitive cannibals, the fire-breathing dragon is a stream of Wendol horsemen carrying torches riding down a mountain, and Grendel’s mother is the witchy-woman who rules the Wendol.
*. Well, at least I thought it was fascinating. But then I’ve read Beowulf. Not bragging, but maybe I got more out of that part of it. Still, even leaving that out I thought it was a solid historical adventure, with lots of guys with beards wielding broadswords and chopping off limbs. The plot is Beowulf meets The Seven Samurai, and what’s wrong with that? Or even Beowulf meets Predator, with the Wendol hanging their dismembered victims upside down and our hero (his name is Buliwyf) all but saying “If it bleeds we can kill it.” Actually, what he says is “If it’s a man it sleeps, and if it sleeps it has a lair.” Same idea.
*. I mentioned how odd it seemed watching The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) today and seeing the hero praying to Allah. This may have been the last big-budget Hollywood flick though that would have a hero doing that.
*. I thought it interesting that one of the changes Crichton made in the reshoots was to change a scene that was more faithful to his novel. As McTiernan had it, the den mother figure was portrayed as an old woman, as she is in the novel. It was decided this didn’t look good on screen so she was changed into a youthful minx. Sometimes the writer has to be one to re-imagine his own work. Or at least repackage it.
*. I really liked the atmosphere they created shooting on location, and the practical effects. It goes with the de-mythologizing theme, and I bought into all the mud and blood entirely. Today this would all be drowned in CGI and there’d be no texture to the film. Just look at the worthless all-CGI version of Beowulf that Robert Zemeckis directed. I’d watch this over that any day. And, I’ll add, I’d rather watch this than the similarly atmospheric Beowulf & Grendel (2005) any day too.
*. So, sure, maybe it was a flop. I think it’s still pretty good. It’s a bit slow and doesn’t move well (probably attributable to all the re-shooting and editing). They should have dropped a lot of the early, introductory stuff. Omar Sharif apparently hated his small part so much he retired from acting for a while. He could and probably should have been left out entirely. But once things get going I find this to be a perfetly serviceable and even at times enjoyable action flick. It’s not a favourite, but it deserves to be remembered as something a lot more than a bomb.
*. Introducing Natalie Portman. A star is born.
*. I think she was 12, the same age as her character. But already she has no trouble stealing the show.
*. Or maybe “stealing” isn’t the right word. She was the only character Luc Besson was interested in. The film was imagined as a sequel to Nikita, with Jean Reno basically reprising his role as Victor the cleaner. (Besson even described Léon as Victor’s “American cousin,” though Léon is, I believe, supposed to be Italian.) It doesn’t take long, however, before Léon gets pushed aside and Mathilda takes over.
*. So Besson, who has always preferred strong female leads, looks past a character who was being played by Reno anyway as “a little mentally slow.”
*. The only other claim on our attention is Gary Oldman’s Stanfield, in a performance considered by some to be a classic and by others as ridiculously over-the-top. Whatever one thinks of it, it seems to have been mostly improvised. The Beethoven speech, for example, and his bellowing to bring in “Everyone!” (a line that has since gone on to become a meme). So as with Léon, Besson was standing back. But when it came to Portman . . .
*. A lot of your response to this movie is going to boil down to how creepy you think the relationship between Léon and Mathilda is. This is not something that is merely hinted at. In the original script Mathilda and Léon do become lovers, and her age is specified as 13 or 14. And though there were cuts made to the American release version, there’s still no pussyfooting around what’s clearly going on. Mathilda says she feels physical love for Léon and tells the concierge that she’s Léon’s lover. She dresses up in lingerie and dances for him (to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” even). She is jealous of the attention he gives to his plant, and tells him sullenly at one point that he “should be watering me if you want me to grow.”
*. Roger Ebert thought the movie seemed “to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it.” I see where this is coming from, but I’m not sure what more Besson could have done. As I say, it’s all out in the open. This isn’t really innuendo. In one of the scenes that was cut Mathilda even wears the dress Léon buys for her and tells him she wants to lose her virginity to him. That’s a scene that was in the movie Besson made, and as I understand it he wasn’t the one who took it out.
*. Making matters more complicated is the fact that Besson himself was having an affair with a younger girl around the same time he was making Léon. So this wasn’t a subject he was approaching in a totally abstract way, but as, in part, a fantasy.
*. In theory, I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of a movie presenting this kind of a love affair. And it even makes a kind of sense given what we’re shown of Mathilda’s abusive home. However, I’m not sure it really fits in a movie of this kind. Is their relationship what this movie is about? This is where I think Ebert has a point. I’m also not sure I buy a bright spark like Mathilda falling for a sad sack like Léon.
*. The action sequences here are still well done, but the best one is right at the start. None of the shoot-ups in the rest of the movie is as interesting (and the invasion of the justice building is preposterous). Again, one senses Besson’s attention is drifting back to Mathilda and he’s just content to let Reno go on autopilot and leave Oldman to do his crazy pill-popping shtick. The results are definitely a mixed bag. I’m still not sure I’ve made my mind up about it. I don’t think it’s as good a movie as Nikita, but it’s also something that strays into being more than a generic action film. For better or worse, it was a labour of love.
*. A sequel — Joe Dante calls it “this most unnecessary of all sequels” — that was a long time coming. And a very different film from Gremlins, which is to its credit. They didn’t want to just go back and do the same thing with better effects.
*. Sometimes you have to throw your hands up as a critic. At the beginning of his commentary director Dante calls Gremlins 2 “one of the most unconventional studio movies ever,” which I think it probably was at the time.
*. There were precursors. Dante goes as far back as Hellzapoppin’ (1941). Still, but for the fact that Warner Bros. was desperate for a hit Gremlins 2 would never have been made. Or at least never made the way it was, with Dante being given complete creative control.
*. The result is anarchy, no less chaotic for being intentional. The story does have a certain structure to it, but while it never breaks down entirely it does get overwhelmed by all the hijinks. Roger Ebert thought it just devolved into a series of gags. I thought it was turning into a variety show even before it does, in fact, turn into a variety show put on by the boisterous critters.
*. As with any variety show there’s a bit of everything thrown into the mix, with a few hits and many misses. Among the former I’d rate Phoebe Cates’s Lincoln’s Day speech (itself a nod to the controversy over her Christmas speech in the first film), the voice of Tony Randall as the brainy gremlin, and the presence of Dick Miller, who is always fun to watch. Everything else is collateral damage.
*. Something seems to have happened to the character of Daniel Clamp. He’s obviously Donald Trump with a bit of Ted Turner tossed in, and right from the start we expect him to be the usual villainous CEO. I mean, his logo even has a clamp crushing the world in its grip. But as things develop he turns out to be just a goofy kid at heart, and someone who really wants to do good.
*. There’s another interesting bit connecting Clamp to Trump in one of the deleted scenes, where a subliminal message plays over the smart building’s PA system saying “You know, I’ve been thinking Mr. Clamp would make a great president.” And they say The Simpsons was the first to see where the Donald was heading.
*. Another announcement we hear over the PA (this time making it into the released version of the film) warns employees about a new program that will monitor their keystrokes. In 1990 that must have seemed comically dystopian. Now we take it for granted.
*. I know you’re not supposed to ask questions like this of what is unabashedly a cartoon, but where do the gremlins find all the little costumes and props to dress up in? It’s like these tiny sets of clothes and different miniature tools and accessories are just lying around.
*. I was surprised to see Christopher Lee. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he seems to just disappear. At least I don’t recall what becomes of Dr. Catheter. But the same thing happened to most of the characters in Gremlins.
*. Does it go too far? Not in the sense of being offensive, but just in being too much? It’s hard to say given that chaos was the plan (if that’s not a contradiction). Personally I think Dante was perhaps given a bit too much leeway. Especially his penchant for movie in-jokes. These are so plentiful that there’s no way to keep track of them, and in most cases I don’t think they add much. Some of them, like the Rambo parody, have also dated to the point where they will be missed by most.
*. It’s silly. And fun, if you’re a kid. Or, like Daniel Clamp or Joe Dante, a kid at heart. I think even in 1990 I had outgrown it. This time around the charm was all nostalgia.
*. This is little more than the filming of a stage version of Poe’s famous story, literal to the point of being a recitation by the narrator (played by Michael Sollazzo). It’s directed by Scott Mansfield, the founder of Monterey Media, who has done a number of independent projects like this.
*. The one bit of cleverness is in the way the narrator continues to address the audience and tell his story even while the events of the story are going on around him. In itself, however, this is nothing surprisingly new, and it does nothing to exploit the story’s dominant passion, which is the obsession and paranoia of the narrator and his mad insistence that he is not mad.
*. I thought the moment when the one policeman directly faces the camera and addresses what seems to be us as the Inspector might have been a clever wrinkle, but I don’t see where they did anything further with it. Too bad.
*. I mentioned the narrator’s mad insistence that he isn’t mad. This is a paradox that had to be developed more. The narrator here is too restrained and the part underplayed, without any of the manic energy you have to feel he’s unsuccessfully trying to keep the lid on.
*. The voice does sort of fit with the décor though, which may be historically accurate but which doesn’t fit with the brooding sense of interiority and terror — what the narrator describes as “the death watches in the wall.” The house here looks like a cozy b&b.
*. I wonder if it’s too long at 25 minutes. Ted Parmalee’s 1953 film and Annette Jung’s 2006 version both only run around 8 minutes. Even Jules Dassin’s film, which is a free adaptation, was done in 20 minutes. It’s not that there’s not enough material here to make a longer film out of, but that there’s such a thing as a short-story aesthetic that depends on being succinct. If you dawdle the whole thing starts to come undone.
*. Gore is hinted at, but not seen. Madness is dramatized, but not felt. There isn’t any suspense to speak of. I came away thinking that I’d actually like to see this version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” live on stage sometime, in a small local theatre where it would have a cozy immediacy. As a movie, however, it’s not worth bothering with unless you’re a student with a paper on it due the next day.
*. I suppose the place we have to start talking about The Shawshank Redemption is with its cult.
*. The word needs some explanation. I don’t mean cult in the sense of an underground or indie favourite — The Shawshank Redemption is as far from that as you can imagine. Instead, I’m using cult to refer to the movie’s committed following, which (just to put my cards on the table) seems irrational to me.
*. When I say it’s irrational I’m talking more about the intensity of feeling the movie inspires rather than the fact that a lot of people like it. As is well known, for many years it was at the very top of the IMDb polls as the highest rated movie ever made (David Thomson: “Times are hard.”). And indeed it continues to hold a special, indeed singular place in many people’s hearts. This is one of those strange cultural facts that critics and commentators have for many years now struggled to explain.
*. I don’t think I can explain it either, aside from pointing out the obvious. It’s a feel-good movie with a message about the power of hope and the triumph of the human spirit. What’s not to like about that? Everything about it goes down as smooth as Morgan Freeman’s buttery narration, and while it mocks religious hypocrisy (a favourite target of author Stephen King) its own point of view is infused with spiritual feeling.
*. With regard to this final point, here’s a line about the film from David Thomson that I have to correct. Thomson writes that “It comes from a novella by Stephen King broadly dedicated to the notion that good nature will come through in the end, yet this is a principle that seldom operates in Mr. King’s customary horror works.” This isn’t true. King has always mocked organized religion, but his belief in a special providential force in the universe that sees to it that goodness and virtue receive their reward is almost always operative in his work. This is one of the things that has made him such a popular author, and which no doubt has contributed much to the staying power of this film.
*. Roger Ebert, a critic who could often be a reasonable proxy for an Everyman (I say that without any snark), had this to say about the Shawshank phenomenon: “Films about ‘redemption’ are approached with great wariness; a lot of people are not thrilled by the prospect of a great film – it sounds like work. But there’s a hunger for messages of hope, and when a film offers one, it’s likely to have staying power even if it doesn’t grab an immediate audience.”
*. So . . . hope. Redemption. The triumph of the human spirit. “No good thing ever dies” (that’s a quote from the film). There is a “hunger for messages” like this. The Shawshank Redemption is soul food for the needy.
*. It’s not to my tastes. I think it’s nicely turned out, but at the end of the day it’s such a hokey, clichéd fairy tale I couldn’t get anything out of it. Instead of feeling uplifted at the end as Andy and Red meet for a chaste hug on that great, safely nondemoninational heaven of a beach in Mexico with all the money in the world I just thought to myself, “Well, that’s nice.” How much more can you read into a film so well-meaning and so bland? Its chief virtue is its simplicity, resilient to criticism and open to all manner of interpretation. Apparently there is a whole moral philosophy contained in the admonishment to “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’,” but it’s a line that strikes me as meaningless. Am I trying too hard?
*. Kull the Conqueror is a mediocre film in a genre with few if any bragging rights to begin with, but I think it’s still possible to say a few words in its defence.
*. It was a bastard project from the start. The intention was for it to be the third part in a Conan trilogy, but Schwarzenegger wanted no part of it. And before you say “smart move, Arnie,” remember that he wanted out of so that he could play Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin. Kull is a crummy movie, but nowhere near that bad.
*. So instead of Conan they subbed in another Robert E. Howard barbarian named Kull. The difference being that Conan was a Cimmerian (who spoke with an Austrian accent) and Kull hails from some antediluvian Atlantis and wields a battle-axe instead of a broadsword. In other words, there was no difference at all between the two characters. In fact, one of the sources for the script here was a story that Howard had originally written about Kull. The names were virtually interchangeable.
*. Instead of Schwarzenegger they signed up Kevin Sorbo, who was playing Hercules on TV in a series called Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Sorbo wasn’t as big a star as Arnold (or as big a “bulging bag of muscle and hair,” as Juba describes him here), but he is a better actor. If you don’t like Kull the Conqueror, don’t blame Sorbo. At least not too much.
*. Just as Conan the Destroyer was a lighter, more humourous affair than Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror takes another step in this same direction. We’re not in full-blown ironic territory yet, but this is a self-aware, funny movie with a heavy metal soundtrack and a handful of well-placed lines (ex: “Your bride is over 3,000 years old.” Kull: “She told me she was 19!”).
*. Tia Carrere and Karina Lombard both look great. Which is pretty much all they have to do. Though Carrere has to show a bit of wildness every now and then before finally transforming into Rider Haggard’s She-who-must-be-obeyed. Speaking of that finale, the move Kull has to pull to destroy Akivasha is pretty amazing, and one of the few things you’re likely to remember from the film.
*. The effects seem pretty crude 20 years later, but they’re no worse than the other Conan movies. The monkey-man in the dungeon is silly, but not quite as silly as the ape-wizard in Conan the Destroyer. And the demon form of Akivasha actually looks pretty good.
*. All of which is just my way of saying that Kull may be bad, but it’s not that bad. Still, it did poorly at the box office and marked the (real) end of the line for the franchise. I don’t think anyone then or since has cared very much.
*. On his DVD commentary for Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis tells a story about how the movie was immediately adopted by various spiritualities and philosophies. I don’t see much connection to Zen Buddhism or the other schools and denominations he mentions, but Groundhog Day does strike me as a movie that taps into two abiding imaginative archetypes that I think go a long way to explaining its abiding charm.
*. In the first place, it’s the fantasy of the do-over. Weatherman Phil Connors has obviously made a mess of his life. He doesn’t seem to have any friends, much less a steady girlfriend, and his dreams of leaving a local TV station for the big leagues are surely going to remain only dreams. But now, thanks to a bit of movie magic, he gets to try again to get it right. He can correct his mistakes. Who doesn’t dream of that?
*. What I especially like about the way this theme is handled here is that Phil not only gets to go back and correct his mistakes, he gets to try and recapture his best moments as well. For me, the saddest scene in the movie is where he tries to recapture the magic moment with Rita after the snowball fight. But that’s not the way happiness works, is it? You have to be surprised by joy. The eternal return can be used to get out of a jam, but you can’t re-create the good times.
*. The other fantasy is that of the makeover. In movies this is often a dark male fantasy. Think My Fair Lady, or Vertigo, or Nikita. Basically a man tries to transform a woman he meets into his dream girl, usually with disastrous results. It is, however, a female fantasy of longstanding too: how the love of a good woman will turn the bad boy into an ideal mate. In real life I don’t know which of these fantasies has resulted in more misery, but since it’s a romantic comedy Groundhog Day lets the female version come true. After a lifetime of effort Phil is finally able to turn himself into someone who is eligible for love. “The things we do,” etc.
*. I said “after a lifetime of effort.” Apparently there is a whole cottage industry devoted to trying to figure out just how long Phil is stuck in the loop. Ramis has said different things. I think the original idea was that he’d been doing it for 10,000 years, but this strikes me as impossible. After only 100 years I think anyone would have simply gone insane. Leaving that aside, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to come up with a precise calculation, even if such a determination were to mean anything.
*. The original screenplay, by Danny Rubin, started in the middle of things, with Phil punching Ned. Rubin thought starting at the beginning was too predictable. That seems odd to me, given that this wasn’t that familiar a story at the time. Audiences have since become more familiar with it, but even in recent adaptations like Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day the movie still starts off before the loop begins. Audiences want that intro, and I think it makes sense dramatically.
*. I don’t find it to be a very funny movie, but I don’t think that’s what it’s going for. It has that lingering sense of sadness hanging over it. There’s a great line where Phil is talking to the local men at the bar and he asks “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and everything that you did was the same, and nothing mattered?” The honest response he gets is that “That about sums it up for me.” That’s one of the funnier lines in the movie, but it’s funny in the tragic sense that it’s true. Or at least that the guy at the bar feels it’s true. And who hasn’t felt the same way at times?
*. I think this was Ramis and Murray’s sixth collaboration and you can feel how comfortable they are with each other. I think that fits with the low-key tone of the proceedings too. They’ve been here before.
*. This is the sort of film that makes a lot of people’s favourites list. Despite how hard-hearted we’ve become, sentiment has never gone entirely out of style. I find it a movie that I appreciate more than one I have a strong personal attachment to. The attention to detail that comes out on repeated viewings is really impressive and it’s a polished product in nearly every department. It’s a great little movie I’m happy not to read too much more into.
*. This isn’t quite what I was expecting. I didn’t know much about The Periwig-Maker going in, though it won scads of awards. I thought it might be a morbid little film along the lines of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Instead it’s adapted by the brother and sister team of Steffen and Annettte Schäffler from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, with overtones of Death in Venice.
*. The nod to Mann’s novella introduces a creepy note to a story that’s ghoulish enough as it is. The business of the Periwig-maker digging up the little girl’s corpse to cut her hair is bad enough, but when he sits up in bed wearing her flaming locks he might be the tarted up Aschenbach, grotesque in his dandy haircut and rouge.
*. Is the little girl the wigmaker’s Tadzio? I don’t think so, as there’s no hint of the erotic, even the morbidly erotic, here. I don’t think the wigmaker is sexually attracted to the little girl. He just seems to have a fetish for hair. Which is even creepier. Note that when he first sees her crying over her mother’s death he immediately thinks of her hair, reaching out to touch a wig in his shop. He doesn’t show any empathy.
*. Given how painstaking a process this kind of stop-motion animation is, you have to pay attention to every detail, however large or small. Among the large details I would rank the exaggerated shape of the wigmaker’s head, which tapers to a dagger-like pointed chin. His eyes are also grotesquely enlarged, and seem to protrude through a series of vertical parentheses, climaxing in eyebrows that suggest a permanent sense of surprise. You expect such a weirdo to sound like Vincent Price, not Kenneth Branagh.
*. What do such distortions mean? The eyes make him out to be a voyeur but vulnerable, looking out his windows at the plague world that he sees as such a threat. The pointy chin is sinister and though not strong, dangerous. Compare the size of the little girl’s button eyes, so like the doll she’s identified with.
*. Among the little things worth noticing are the reveal of the rain in the shadows running down the windows, and its mirroring in the melted candle. This is a world dissolving before our eyes. Or watch the shadow play of the little girl’s dead body being dropped into the wigmaker’s lap. Windows are a major motif throughout the film, and what’s interesting here is how we see through them both ways. We look out and the world looks in.
*. It’s the weirdness of The Periwig-Maker that stays with me. The subtext. I mentioned how Branagh’s narration doesn’t really fit the strange wigmaker, and when you watch the movie several times you start to wonder if it’s even meant to. Nothing in the narration really has to do with any of the action in the film at all. What the wigmaker is thinking has to be guessed at, interpreted through his gestures and expressions. What we suspect is something very strange. Perhaps something noble, or depraved. We can’t be sure.
*. I didn’t have any expectations that Point of No Return would be as good as Luc Besson’s Nikita, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.
*. It should have been good. They stuck to the original’s script remarkably closely, at least through the first couple of acts. The changes they made are for the worse, but they are mainly cosmetic, basically just making it more Hollywood (in a bad, and literal, way). Nikita is now Maggie and her love interest is a photographer not a checkout clerk. She actually blows up the hotel room she brings the room service to. She and her fiancé go to New Orleans not Venice for her first undercover kill. The final target isn’t an embassy but some mansion in the hills overlooking L.A.
*. The end of the movie, however, is just a total fudge. Maggie inexplicably falls apart on her final assignment but somehow gets out of it without the assistance of a berserker Victor. We don’t get the scene where the boyfriend (what was his name? J.P. Yeah, J.P.) tells her that he knew about her double life all along. We find out that her handler Bob (Gabriel Byrne) was still in love with her. Victor the Cleaner is disposed of in a very silly, Hollywood way.
*. The cast is hit and miss, but overall I would rate it as strong. I really like Bridget Fonda and she should have been up to this part but she’s horribly misused. There’s no moment of agony when she opens up the present of the gun in the restaurant, but she breaks down in the kingpin’s lair. That makes no sense. Nikita at least had a coherent character arc. As for the rest of the names, Miguel Ferrer is as enjoyably sleazy as usual. Gabriel Byrne seems even sleepier than usual. Anne Bancroft is a strong presence that is wasted. Harvey Keitel starts off in good form as a nerdy version of Jean Reno’s Cleaner but is then simply dropped off a cliff. Tarantino would bring him back as a clean-up man the next year in Pulp Fiction.
*. So they had a good script to work with (meaning the original), and a decent cast, and they still came up with this. I blame director John Badham, who seems to have no feel for, or even interest in, the proceedings. The action and suspense sequences here all fall totally flat. Meanwhile, I could name a dozen individual shots in Nikita that stand out as so well composed and embedded as to have become nearly iconic. Point of No Return hasn’t a single one. Badham didn’t even keep any from the original!
*. Writing about this movie is making me hate it more. Because it’s so close to the original it’s one of those remakes where you have to wonder (and in my case I can only wonder) what your response would be to it if you hadn’t already seen Nikita. Would I have enjoyed it more? I like to think I wouldn’t have just because it’s such a lousy piece of filmmaking. Having seen Nikita first only made it seem worse.
*. Along with a lot of other people (albeit not so many French film critics) I was pretty much blown away by Nikita when it first came out. What surprised me on this latest re-watch is how it hasn’t missed a beat despite having had many imitators, including a remake (Point of No Return) and a television series.
*. A less happy reflection is that despite all of his promise on display here, Luc Besson never came through. From what I’ve seen, Nikita may still be his best movie.
*. Obviously he’s infatuated with the character of the Manic Pixie Asskicker, his main protagonist, but I still prefer Anne Parillaud to Milla Jovovich or Scarlett Johansson in this role. And while he would go on to work with much bigger budgets I think Nikita manages to do more with less.
*. I mentioned that French critics weren’t as thrilled by Nikita, which may have something to do with Besson being hailed as Mr. Hollywood. I don’t know how fair that is. Nikita is a genre movie and Hollywood does define genres, so there’s that. Even Hong Kong action films were “Hollywood” to a large extent. But Besson does have a signature style even working within genre conventions. I mean, Point of No Return is, at least until the very end, a very close re-working of the same material and compared to Nikita it’s just dead.
*. One of the things that impresses me about Nikita is how stripped-down it is. A movie like this could have spent forever dealing with Nikita’s personal history and training, but Besson knew this was immaterial, inessential. So his heroine has her past erased and her training is foreshortened to the point where it seems almost comic. She’s already a master of the martial arts and is handy with a gun, which is simply given to her seemingly on Day One. Of course it isn’t Day One — her leg, for one thing, has had time to heal — but it seems like her training has just begun.
*. The other thing that stands out is the sense of style I mentioned earlier. It’s style employed with intelligence and restraint. There’s nothing over-the-top about Nikita, and I especially love how assured Besson was to run that whole hotel scene and not have any payoff. The American version was not so confident.
*. Anne Parillaud is great as the tough-but-vulnerable action hero and you couldn’t go wrong with this supporting cast. Tchéky Karyo is an actor I always enjoy watching. Jeanne Moreau is class, and Jean Leon is Victor the clean-up guy, a performance so good they had to bring him back. Who can forget that tub scene?
*. In his review Roger Ebert references the Pygmalion story (one “for our own violent times”) but I was thinking of Vertigo. Either way it’s part of that male fantasy of molding the perfect woman (or weapon) to your own specs. It’s a nice touch to have the two men abandoned at the end wondering what happened. Maybe Nikita was just a dream.
*. This is one of the best action films of the ’90s, but like I said earlier Besson never really built on it. I find this very hard to understand. Yes, he made some other good movies but there was so much promise here that was left unfulfilled. Why was it such a creative dead end?