And, as a fan of Alias before it, I would've expected CW's version to have more hyper-tragic origins, more ridiculous stakes, and even more stupid fetish costumes for the lead to wear. And I would've been almost completely wrong.
So imagine my wonderment when I watched the show in order to trash it, only to realize that it's a minor treasure trove of solid performances, great plotting, good characters, and excellently-executed action sequences. Nikita surpasses the trappings of its genre - and that damn DVD box cover - to stand as a strongly-written action series and (gasp) one of the best ever examples of a female fighter on film or TV. I know that last part is a big statement, but I am confident in being able to back it up...
First, a little background. Back in 1990, Luc Besson released his fourth feature film, Nikita (also called La Femme Nikita, like Leon was The Professional in the US). The movie didn't receive unanimous critical praise, but it was a box office hit in France, and grew very popular Stateside - probably once Siskel and Ebert gave it a positive review. I remember enjoying the hell out of it, myself.
Please ignore the 80's-porn-esque music.
La Femme Nikita stood out for a lot of reasons. It had a fresh, interesting story: a French secret agency takes young violent convicts, fakes their deaths, and then trains them to work off their societal debt as highly-skilled assassins. It had some amazing action sequences, as well as some intense violence - like when "Victor the cleaner" takes Nikita's victim and uses chemicals to dissolve the body in a bathtub. And it gave a great arc to its strong female lead, a wild person who is molded into carrying herself with grace and style. Nikita's many flaws made her both more credible and more likable to audiences, which was already a lock because she's almost getting the Clockwork Orange treatment.
Three years later, the movie received an English-language remaking starring Bridget Fonda in the lead role. And then four years after that, Besson's pic was turned into a Canadian TV series called La Femme Nikita, which starred Peta Wilson and ran for five seasons. I recall watching Point of No Return and liking the original better, but I was never tempted to tune into the television show. So now it's been reworked on a level similar to what DJ described in his Hannibal post.
In fact, those two English-language efforts were part of why I rolled my eyes fairly hard when CW's Nikita was announced 9 years later. At that point, it seemed like a black hole of remake-itis, and I didn't know any of the cast, and CW Networks' offerings seemed pretty inferior back then. But, oh, how the times have changed - the Maggie Q program is practically an object lesson in not prejudging things...
A big part of why Nikita works so well is that it hews closely to all of the concepts and themes of its source material. Much as in Besson's pic, Nikita was a junkie who robbed a pharmacy at night with her boyfriend. The robbery goes badly, and everyone save our lead is killed - along with a police officer that she personally offed. Once her death sentence is carried out, our heroine wakes up in a holding cell of "Division," the mysterious agency that offers to give this junkie some purpose as well as allowing her to make up for what she's done.
But another big part of why Nikita works so well is that it takes that setup and twists it in a deceptive and imaginative fashion. You should've seen my expression when the series opens with the crime that gets Nikita in trouble. The criminals are even wearing the same animal masks worn at the start of the French film!
And then, the show drops a hammer on you: it's not Nikita who's committing the crime. It's another young woman with a drug problem, and she gets pulled into Division's clutches and, holy crap, Nikita has already defected Division to wage a one-woman war against the people that forced her to commit crimes even worse than the one she was executed for. And the episode ends with the revelation that the new recruit, Alexandra (Lyndsy Fonseca), is actually a mole planted by Nikita to get inside access to her enemies.
So now it's a two-woman war.
This inspired choice may be cynically believed to be an excuse to add a pretty young woman to show. And I must admit that I can see entertainment execs being so foolish as to say that Maggie Q, at 31, is just too "old," so the sex appeal should come from Fonseca, who was 23. God, I hope that wasn't the thought process at work...
Whatever the motivation, it allows for something brilliant and beyond clever: it lets the show repeat the first half of Besson's movie, which was centered on Nikita's being inculcated into Division and starting a romance with her training supervisor - and, at the exact same time, to run a story about Nikita breaking free of Division and trying to bring the clandestine group down. From a writing perspective, it's genius, and it adds extra tension and storytelling possibilities, which I think the series took great advantage of.
What's probably the most admirable aspect of the show is the respect and complexity given to its lead. No other TV show - and few movies - have done such a good job of portraying what I call "the warrior woman on her warrior way." As with many of the best heroes, Nikita has been through a crucible and come through it with a sense of purpose and a Zen-like compassion that underlies her white-hot rage.
While our lead hungers to stop her former bosses, she doesn't necessarily want to kill any of the recruits are send after her. She knows that they are deceived pawns, just as she once was. So if one of them points a gun at her, she may very well kill them - but if she can just knock the tar out of them, that's the path she'd rather tread. She puts a lot of bodies in the ground, and yet tries to show restraint. It's another nice Zen element, where Nikita is a teacher who's pitted against mere students.
Speaking of which - when the series starts, Division has been desperate to kill or recapture Nikita for a while. All of their recruits - remember, young-ish people who were in jail for murder or worse - know that Nikita was the best field agent ever. The result is that a lot of these young killers both fear and respect their adversary, while others view her as a way to prove themselves.
And that's where the rest of the cast comes in. When I said I knew no one in the cast, it turned out there were two familiar faces. First, we have the great Xander Berkeley as Percy Rose. Percy is the quintessential villain. He's a master strategist, ever ahead of his compatriots as well as his competitors. His ideology allows him to be both pure in his focus at the same time that he corrupts whomever is around him. And he's never conflicted in his goals or desires. Really, he's like Prof. Moriarty thrust into the Bourne novels.
Melinda Clarke is stunning as Amanda, the psychology expert who's both Division's etiquette tutor, as well as its chief interrogator. Shane West is the gruff, terse Michael Bishop - with his gravelly voice and his anger at Nikita's betrayal, he's the most likely person to bring her down. Aaron Stanford also provides some fine comedy and dramatic support as the tech genius, Seymour Birkhoff - anyone who recalls him as Pyro in X-2 will be glad to see how neatly this actors shifts tacks.
Nikita is emotional and passionate, but this is never written as a source of... Nikita's psychology isn't written like a stereotypical TV female character, and I love that she doesn't fall into any of the various cliches (ice queen, fragile princess). I also love that she maintains her sense of humor.
To some degree it feels silly to keep stumping for genre TV. My review here today is partly based on the fact that I haven't recommended many good action series before. I like to point out things you likely wouldn't try otherwise, and I know that it was a matter of luck that I tried. Also, I like
For two seasons, Nikita manages to keep this blend of plot and character development blended cleverly with action and intrigue. It’s the third time around where things go awry a bit. The show chose an overarching storyline that was less engaging and well-executed than before. Moreover, it struggled to find villains that made as strong an impression as past bad guys, and it also makes the classic Alias mistake of adding new technologies that are so powerful as to distract from and unravel the tension from its plot lines. I was disappointed enough that I still have made my way through its abbreviated 6-episode fourth season.
All I can say to that is, hey, pobody’s nerfect. But for at least two straight seasons, Nikita provided fine plotting, impressive stunt work, and as admirable a female lead as I have ever seen. If you chose to spend your time on a TV series that centered on action and adventure, you really can’t do much better than this one. Check it out, and be sure to let me know if you enjoyed yourself; I’m betting heavily that you will.