La Femme Nikita

Very Little in this French thriller makes sense, but it's all savagely engrossing because of the performance of Anne Parillaud in the title role. She's a spellbinder. Writer-director Luc Besson introduces Nikita, a sociopathic punk junkie, in a brutal opening scene in which she joins her strung-out friends in a drugstore robbery. During a graphically violent shoot-out with the police, her pals are slaughtered and Nikita kills a cop. Sentenced to to death, Nikita is reprieved by agreeing to be trained as a government assassin.

Besson's film is a smash in France, as was his last, the irredeemably chuckle-headed Big Blue, which justly flopped across the Atlantic. Nikita should change Besson's luck in America – it's wildly seductive and erotic, and Parillaud has the sizzle to melt any language barriers. I was won over the moment Jeanne Moreau showed up as Amande, a government official supervising Nikita's make-over from guttersnipe to fair lady. Nikita's training in weaponry can't match the femme fatale lessons conveyed simply by watching the legendary Moreau apply lipstick.

After three years in a high-security compound under the tutelage of Amande and Bob, artfully played by Tcheky Karyo as a blend of Henry Higgins and the Terminator, Nikita is sent out into the real world. She's touched when Bob takes her to dinner at a chic restaurant and then momentarily shocked when he hands her a gun and tells her to blow away someone at a table behind her. But Nikita is up to the task. She finds an apartment, a sweet-natured lover in Marco (the charming Jean-Hugues Anglade) and a seemingly normal life – that is, until she is called upon again to do her assassin thing.

Besson proves adept at staging action; one scene in which Nikita sets up her rifle in a hotel bathroom and coolly blows away a target while Marco stands unknowing outside the bathroom door is chillingly tense. But it's the fate of Nikita – both vitalized and victimized by love – that makes the film more than just a dazzling exercise in style. Nikita gets under your skin. Ditto the movie.