Friday, August 13, 2010

Multiple reincarnations

The truly iconic characters in our collective cultural history have a way of continuing to pop up over and over again. You can't keep them down. We seem to have an insatiable appetite to revisit them every couple years, to look at them in a new way.

Superman. Robin Hood. James Bond.

La Femme Nikita?

Sure seems like that. The character created by Luc Besson for his 1990 film La Femme Nikita -- a junkie convict made over as an elegant government assassin -- is about to get reincarnated for the third time. Those four incarnations include twice at the movies, and now, with this fall's Nikita set to premiere September 9th on the CW, twice on TV.

The arresting billboards of Maggie Q in a slinky red dress (not pictured), lying on her left side next to a sniper's rifle that runs almost the length of her body, have started to multiply in the last week or two, and they've certainly caught my attention. At first I thought "That's a smart idea, to make a weekly hour-long drama based on La Femme Nikita." And then I thought, "Wait, they've already made a weekly hour-long drama based on La Femme Nikita."

Who would have guessed that this Nikita character had such ongoing perceived relevance in the zeitgeist?

She first appeared, of course, in Nikita (released in the U.S. as La Femme Nikita, and most commonly known that way), the film that put Luc Besson on the map. Anne Parillaud originated the character, and French treasure Tcheky Karyo co-starred as her handler. The film was an international hit, and though it was not Besson's first feature, it definitely seems like a key to the direction his career took after that. Besson went on to make several prominent films with tough female characters, such as Leon (a.k.a. The Professional), The Fifth Element and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.

Even back then, it was perhaps inevitable that La Femme Nikita would get remade in Hollywood. That remake materialized in 1993 and starred Bridget Fonda, dropping the word "Nikita" from the marketing in favor of the highly generic title Point of No Return. Opposite Fonda was Gabriel Byrne. Simply put, I hated this film. I'll never sit through it again to rediscover what I found so objectionable about it, but let's just say the hatred was palpable. In fact, it's the only review I've ever written for my website that they've taken down and not replaced with another writer's work. I never found out why this happened, preferring to chalk it up to an anomaly, but I suspect that the extreme vitriol in my review had something to do with it.

Nikita was back for a third round in the form of her first television incarnation, which restored the original French title -- or, I should say, the American adjustment of the original French title -- in 1997. La Femme Nikita starred Peta Wilson, with Roy Dupuis stepping into the handler role. It's hard to believe, but this show ran on USA Network for parts of five seasons -- this was back when fringe networks could stick with their programming forever because they had so few viewers, relative to the other networks. I only saw one part of one episode, but it was enough to solidify in my mind the idea that Wilson was smoking hot.

The 2010 version of La Femme Nikita, called just Nikita, makes the character a non-white for the first time -- or not totally white, anyway. (Maggie Q was born in Hawaii to a father of Polish, French Canadian and Irish descent, and a mother of Vietnamese descent.) I guess that's a good sign of our ethnically diverse times. As another sign of our times, it's chronologically separate enough from the first three incarnations -- which were all more or less in the 1990s (Wilson's show went off the air in 2001) -- that it qualifies as sort of a reboot. It would appear that she'll have her most youthful mentor yet in the form of Shane West, who is only 32. Gotta get those kids interested.

As I said earlier, I'm captivated by the posters -- they tap into some deep-seated idea of our primal notions of sex and death. But will I watch the show? Heck no.

The big difference between now and 20 years ago was that the idea that chicks can kick ass was actually something of a new notion in 1990. Yeah, there had been Wonder Woman and Charlie's Angels and a couple other instances of women in pop culture beating the crap out of people (or aliens, thanks to Sigourney Weaver), but many of those instances were steeped in camp.

Now? We see a chick who can kick ass every five minutes in the movies or on TV. And while I think that's an excellent step forward in feminism, I also think it's a little boring -- especially because they're still presenting it as though it's a highly fascinating, highly clever "twist" on a male-dominated paradigm.

Need some examples? How much time have you got?

Let's see, in no particular order ... there was Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in Batman Returns, Halle Berry's Catwoman in Catwoman, Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow on Alias, Carrie Anne Moss' Trinity in the Matrix movies, Angelina Jolie's Lara Craft in the Tomb Raider movies, Charlize Theron's Aeon Flux in Aeon Flux, Kate Beckinsale's Selene in the Underworld movies, Milla Jovovich's Alice in the Resident Evil movies (and one more still to come), Michelle Ryan's Jaime Sommers on The Bionic Woman, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Lena Headey's Sarah Connor on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Yvonne Starhovski's Sarah Walker on Chuck, Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jennifer Garner again as Elektra in Daredevil and Elektra, Milla Jovovich again as Violet in Ultraviolet, Angelina Jolie again as Mrs. Smith in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (and as Evelyn Salt in Salt, and as Fox in Wanted), Halle Berry again as Storm in the X-Men movies, Jessica Alba as Sue Storm (slight difference) in The Fantastic Four movies, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II in Watchmen, Uma Thurman as The Bride in the Kill Bill movies, the trio of women in the two Charlie's Angels movies, Jessica Biel as Abigail Whistler in Blade: Trinity, Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, Sigourney Weaver twice more as Ripley in two more Alien sequels, the heroines of the three Besson movies mentioned above, and eventually, a long-awaited big screen version of Wonder Woman, starring TBA. (I could go on, but when I asked how much time you had, I should have mentioned that my time is finite as well.)

Like I said, I'm all for the gender equality. But what it means is that just trying to hook us with the idea of a female assassin isn't really going to get you anywhere in 2010 ... even one as sultry looking as Maggie Q looks in the promotions.

But should they try? Sure, why not? We all know how far name recognition gets you. I just find it interesting to realize that "Nikita" is now a name that has such recognition. She's not Cinderella, nor Cleopatra, nor Snow White, nor Rapunzel, nor Joan of Arc, nor some other famous female in either the non-fiction or fiction universe, who has been familiar to us for centuries. She's an anarchy-loving punk in a modest little French film, who got arrested for shooting a cop in the face, then was made over into a sophisticated woman and lethal weapon. And she's now in her fourth pop culture incarnation.

More power to her.


Don Handsome said...

When you talk about Nikita, you also have to mention the way the various incarnations have handled the fundamental male fantasy at its heart. Nikita’s is not a story of girl wanting to empower herself, it’s the story of male-imposed transformation. The wild and destructive tendencies of a somewhat feral woman are redirected into a high tech weapon with sex appeal. What Nikita does with this transformation is where the empowerment comes in, but at its core this whole thing begins as a man-controlling-woman fantasy. These sexual politics are palpable in Besson’s original, and the fact that Nikita’s actions even after the transformation simultaneously affirm and counteract the male fantasy that informs it, makes La Femme Nikita a wonderfully nuanced and subtle action film. One reason I stopped watching the Nikita stuff after it was remade was that in its undeniable ineptitude Point of No Return repressed the sexual politics but kept the high-tech weapon aspect, transforming the Nikita character into only a hot-chick who can kick ass (and as you’ve so brilliantly pointed out…this been done again and again). I always assumed that the TV series continued a similar focus (Why would expect a nuanced program that dealt directly with complex sexual politics from the USA Network?) so I never tried it out. But Buffy The Vampire Slayer dealt with (admittedly slightly different) sexual politics and societal expectations very effectively with its run on the WB and UPN so I shouldn’t have been so prejudiced.
I think that the Girls who Kick ass aspect of this Franchise sells to the lowest common denominator in us all, but it lost any substantive purpose for existing after it was remade. Its no Buffy. Hey, why wasn’t Buffy on your list? Buffy kicks ass. Buffy’s pretty pervasive in pop culture. I know that list was finite…but no Buffy?

Vancetastic said...

A glaring omission, Don. I was wracking my brain, and included in my laundry list whatever I could think of in the time constraints that I allowed myself. That Buffy was missing was shameful.

Okay, because a blog is a living entity, I'm going to go back and correct it for future readers of this post. However, let these comments remain as a record of the fact that I failed on the first go-around.

Excellent observation about the male-controlled nature of the Nikita fantasy. I remember very well how hard to tame she was, almost like a wild animal. In a way, this functions an an excellent metaphor for how female-related male fantasies are created by men in general in the largely male-controlled Hollywood.

Simon said...

What I liked about the original was that it didn't present women in any of the neat little boxes they usually are--either terribly abused little things that need to be saved, some variation of the heart-of-gold, you know--and gave Nikita all these faults that weren't 'she's ditzy' or 'she's clumsy', they gave her a personality. The TV show and the remake got rid of the thing that made her transformation so miraculous, the junkie thing, and made her an atypical wronged government agent, y'know?

Vancetastic said...


I don't know about the TV show, but they definitely kept the same background for Nikita (called Maggie in Bridget Fonda's hands) in Point of No Return. Which did not make it a good movie, by any stretch.