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Warner Home Video presents
"Look at yourself. Admire yourself. See your beauty. You can learn to shoot, you can learn to fight. But there's no weapon as powerful as your femininity. We're family now, Nikita."
DVD ReviewFrench director Luc Besson's most popular film, 1990's La Femme Nikita, has had the dubious distinction of inspiring two U.S. remakes—the mindless Bridget Fonda xerox, Point of No Return, and a low-budget cable series that never found widespread acceptance. But the later, a re-imagining of the original film that had the good sense to retain its title and its cold, detached tone of paranoia and repressed emotions, differs in one key way from its American counterpart: it's actually good.
The set-up follows the 1990 feature, with one key difference. In Besson's film, Nikita is a young street urchin who kills someone during a robbery attempt and winds up in an undercover anti-terrorist organization with other former criminals, forced to repay a debt to society by defending the free world. In the series, created by Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow (the celebrated innovators behind Fox's critical darling 24, Nikita (Peta Wilson) still is convicted of a horrible crime, still recruited against her will into an elite military organization (known as Section), but she didn't commit the murder that put her there. In the film, Nikita is searching for redemption and trying to escape her past. In the series, she's trying to maintain her humanity, trying to cling to the last vestiges of a normal life.
Of course, Besson's film was two hours long, and honestly, was short on story even then. The series had to twist the premise enough to sustain 22 weekly episodes per season. Turning Nikita into an innocent in a harsh new world was a good first step. Besson's Nikita is petulant, distant, and unlikable, and certainly not someone I'd want to invite into my home every week. The TV Nikita is softer, more of an innocent to the harsh ways of the world. Australian newcomer Peta Wilson handled the role well, subtly reigning in her emotions more and more every week as Nikita loses her soul to Section piece by piece. Section, meanwhile, retains the feel of a shadowy black-ops group with unlimited funds and a license to kill pretty much anyone (including its agents), but it too is expanded and re-imagined for the purposes of a weekly series. We get to know some of the other agents, convicted criminals all, and learn a bit here and there about their pasts. Michael (Roy Dupuis) is Nikita's handler, and his immediate and obvious (though underplayed) attraction to her is undercut only by the way he pretty much treats her like crap. The relationship between Michael and Nikita is more than likely what attracted the series a cult following. Dupuis and Wilson have an undeniable chemistry, though his interpretation of the character (every line a monotone, every emotion erased) takes some getting used to.
The rest of the cast provides a bit of color and expands further upon the film. Madeline (Alberta Wilson) is second in command and (at least during Season One) something of a mother figure to Nikita. But she also proves herself to be a ruthless agent, more than willing to use horrible methods of torture to interrogate even innocent prisoners. Her boss, known only as Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer) is equally cold. He is mistrustful of Nikita (understandable, considering her frequent screw-ups early on) and more than once orders her "cancellation." Computer guru Birkof (Matthew Ferguson) and weapons expert Walter (Don Francks) round out the cast, provide comic relief and abilities that help forward the plot every week (because a spy show wouldn't be complete without nifty gadgets).
Nikita works fairly well as a series, and manages to find its own voice while taking advantage of formulaic plotting and genre cliché. Each episode starts with an intelligence briefing from Operations outlining that episode's villain of the week (more often than not, some dastardly piece of Eurotrash). Nikita gets her assignment, which usually involves some sort of undercover mission that requires her to play dress up. Michael is her backup, and the two share a few scenes rife with sexual tension. And, in the end, Nikita tries to do the right thing but somehow finds herself betrayed by the uncompromising Operations, who would just as soon kill all the innocent witnesses than bother protecting loose ends.
Things start off a little rough. The pilot, Nikita, crams the movie's plot into 45 minutes, borrows a few action scenes from Point of No Return (good thing Warner owned the footage), and calls it a day. The choppy pace, low-budget feel, and surprisingly dated fashions make it a little tough to sit through. But by episode 6, Love, the writers had gotten past the film's framework (though they still used bits and pieces up through episode 13, Recruit) and started to create new and more or less original stories that seemed, at the time at least, fairly daring for TV (even cable TV). Nikita and Michael play the part of a kinky husband and wife terrorist duo in an attempt to infiltrate a criminal group eager to unleash a deadly nerve gas, all the while fooling with an audience that has come to expect a standard love story to blossom between the two. For now, unspoken sentiment, longing glances, and S&M role-playing will have to do.
Other standouts from the first season include Escape, in which a fellow agent offers to free Nikita from the oppressive section; Recruit, in which Nikita is forced to decide the fate of a dangerous new agent; and War, featuring one of the most intense and twisted torture scenes of the series. The capper Verdict ends the season with a wonderful cliffhanger that could just as easily have served as a series finale.
I watched the first season of Nikita when it originally aired on the USA Network in 1997. At the time, I loved it for the action and for the strong female lead, something I'd never before seen in an action series. For some reason, I stopped after the first year. The show ended up lasting for four full seasons, plus an eight episode "bonus season" tacked on after fans protested an early cancellation. In the six years since Nikita began, strong women in TV action leads have become much more common, and I don't find it as compelling as I once did. The constant running theme of paranoia gets a little tiring, and after a while, Section's oppressive techniques get a little predictable. I prefer the current equivalent, Alias, not only because of the snazzier missions and increased humor, but because I find I can actually connect to the characters on an emotional level. Nikita is a little too uncompromising for my tastes, and revisiting episodes can sometimes be a drag. Nevertheless, it's a gritty, entertaining show, and without it, there would be no Alias or 24, so for that, I am grateful.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Image quality is generally fairly good, but there are some odd problems that may have something to do with the source material. I don't know what film stock was used, but it looks like it might have been 16 mm, at least for second unit footage, because many scenes look excessively grainy. The problem comes and goes—some dark scenes look fairly clean, while others show grain. Some bright sequences are fine, but some are positively swimming with grain (particularly noticeable during the "white room" sequences). It's a little distracting, but I got used to it rather quickly. Luckily there don't seem to be any digital artifacts despite all that grain, so the mastering was quite well done.
Otherwise, image quality is pretty good for a medium-budget cable series. Colors are clear and stable (for the most part—occasionally reds and whites bloom a bit). Black level is very good (and a good thing, too, since so much of this series takes place in the dark). Detail is fine overall, but some scenes look a bit soft and fuzzy (another problem that comes and goes). I noticed no edge enhancement or aliasing to speak of. On the whole, not bad. Most of the problems seem to stem from the source materials and not the DVD transfer. On his commentary for Mercy, Joel Surnow states that production values went up a lot in Season Two, so things can only get better from here.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Most TV shows aren't mixed for 5.1 surround, and Warner must have decided that a remix wasn't financially warranted in Nikita's case. That's fine; the original DD 2.0 mix sounds quite good. The front soundstage handles most of the audio, with dialogue positioned in the center and always clear (natural, too, though there are a few obvious instances of ADR throughout the season). The score and the pop soundtrack is spread nicely into the front mains and into the rears (which also kick in some atmosphere during crowd scenes and action sequences, as well as subtle enhancements to scenes in Section). LFE is lacking, causing loud explosions to sound a little hollow, but the mix is generally well suited to the material. I would have appreciated more subtlety and directionality across the front soundstage, but this mix isn't bad at all.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 132 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
9 Deleted Scenes
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by executive consultant Joel Surnow, creative consultant Robert Cochran, and episode director Jon Cassar on Nikita; executive consultant Joel Surnow on Mercy
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Commentaries are included for two episodes that bookend the season. The premiere, Nikita, features executive consultant Joel Surnow, creative consultant Robert Cochran, and episode director Jon Cassar. It's a little hard to tell who is talking at times, but all three share lots of stories about creating the series, giving it a signature look and feel, and shooting the first episode. Be warned—there are some minor spoilers for Season Two near the end of the track. Joel Surnow flies solo for season ender Mercy, chatting about casting the show, story development as the season progressed, and the chemistry between Peta Wilson and Roy Dupuis. He also comments that there is a lot of Nikita in 24, which seems fairly obvious now that I've seen them both. No spoilers on this track.
Nine "canceled" scenes are included on various discs throughout the season. Disc One has four: two for Nikita, and one each for Friend and Simone. Disc Two has three, all for Charity. Disc Three has two, one for Choice and one for Gray (the most interesting of the bunch, as its deletion allowed for a follow-up in the episode War). All of the scenes include optional commentary from Surnow, who briefly explains why they were excised.
Disc Six features a 12-minute featurette entitled Section One Declassified: The Making of La Femme Nikita. The majority of the running time is spent on casting, as the actors and producers talk about the characters in a series of newly recorded interviews. Special mention is also made of Sean Callery's music and Rocco Matteo's production design. Peta Wilson is interviewed in front of a very cool Nikita poster that I want very badly.
Not a lot of extras, but the series does receive the classy Warner treatment, including a handsome "book" case (the discs are held in plastic "pages"). There are six chapter stops for each episode, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsLa Femme Nikita re-imagines and expands upon Luc Besson's excellent film and, after a few missteps, quickly comes into its own as a challenging, engaging, and creative spy thriller. A series years ahead of its time looks better than ever on DVD thanks to top-notch treatment from Warner (who hopefully won't leave us hanging, waiting for Season Two).
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