Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

POINT OF NO RETURN (1993) ** 1/2

Directed by John Badham. Written by Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros, based on "Nikita" by Luc Besson. Cinematography, Michael Watkins. Editing, Frank Morriss. Production design, Philip Harrison. Music, Hans Zimmer. Cast: Bridget Fonda, Gabriel Byrne, Dermot Mulroney, Miguel Ferrer, Anne Bancroft, Olivia D'Abo, Harvey Keitel. A Warners release. 108 min. Rated R (violence, language, adult situations).

From almost its beginnings, Hollywood has remade more French films that products of other nations. As is the rule, remakes of any sort suffer in the process. Think of the current "Sommersby" and "The Vanishing."

"Point of No Return" however fares much better. For one thing, its 1990 modish French model was already filmed "a l'americaine" by movie junkie Luc Besson. More importantly, "Point of No Return" is not, as its credits state, simply "based" on "Nikita" ("La Femme Nikita" in this country). It could, instead, be called the first fac-simile film of the FAX era, since it is mostly a scene-by-scene copy of the original -- with some shifts to transpose the story from France to the U.S.A.

In "Nikita," Anne Parillaud plays 19-year old Nikita, a member of a gang of crazed, murderous junkies. In a stupor during a shootout with a SWAT team, she blows out the brains of a cop and is condemned to life.

A mysterious government agency fakes her death and, for logic-defying reasons, makes of the unwilling Nikita a political killing machine. Held for a long time within a center of operations, she is trained in weaponry, martial arts and other procedures. She is groomed and metamorphosed from super-violent slattern to chic lady. Given a new identity, Nikita is molded into a lethal Jane Bond and let loose with Terminator assignments.

In quality "Point of No Return" is on a par with the original. Some parts are a little better, others a little worse, yet most of its strengths and weaknesses correspond to those of "Nikita."

Bridget Fonda (called Maggie) replaces Parillaud; Gabriel Byrne, as Bob, is her Pygmalion-like control; Anne Bancroft plays her finishing-school teacher; Dermot Mulroney plays J.P. who becomes Maggie's lover after her release from the compound.

The first parts of both films are the strongest and the most alike: the opening violence, the woman's defiance, her relationships with Bob and her Miss Manners mentor, and the climactic "graduation exercise" in which Nikita-Maggie, in a posh restaurant, pumps bullets into a man and his bodyguards.

It is in the restaurant sequence that some differences begin to emerge. John Badham directs with extra energy the fracas, makes it longer and deadlier than the French, and close to Westerns where the protagonist's aim in unerring, while he/she remains unscathed. This adds to the disbelief, but also to the pleasure of gun battle fanciers.

In the French film Nikita is headquartered in Paris. Her first assignment has her helping with the termination of some unseen people in a Paris hotel; her second is in Venice, Italy; her third, back in Paris.

"Point" relocates Maggie from Washington to Venice, California, the place where more people glide than walk. This may be a cute conceit (one Venice for another) but the facile Hollywood overuse of Venice, CA. (cf."Falling Down") is a cliche in itself.

Maggie's first assignment however, in a Los Angeles hotel, is more graphic and detailed. It includes a spectacular explosion that, I am sure, the French film skipped not out of delicacy but because of its cost.

In "Point"'s Assignment Two, New Orleans replaces Venice (Italy). The plot nicely folds in some actual Mardi Gras footage, while it can't resist a short addition of kick-boxing. Hollywood won't leave well enough alone, but no harm (to the film structure, that is) is really done.

In Assignment Three (Paris and California respectively) incredibility grows exponentially in both versions. "Point" has a slight edge, as the French episode was very confusedly plotted. On the other hand, California's sunnier and airier setting diminishes the mood of "Nikita"'s somber Paris, a tone also present earlier in the French Center's more realistic blend of high-tech and grunginess.

In neither film does the intensive social training of the girl (such as lessons on table etiquette, and for Maggie, also learning French and improving her English) get sufficiently worked into the plot. But it is amusing to have Bancroft enjoin her pupil : " Say 'I feel badly, not 'bad' -- 'bad ' is an adjective. And remember to say ' It remains a secret between her and me, not she and I." Non-killers, note.

Bridget Fonda's Maggie, first monstrously wild, then tamed but sad, is quite effective. And her parallel physical transformation -- bad skin, yellow teeth and all -- into fashionable glamor, is a good illustration of the movies' magic through makeup.

On the debit side, while Fonda is very good as a killer, she makes a pallid "normal" person. In the interludes of her enjoying life and love, mixing ravioli and sex (a vulgar addition), doing fun things with her boyfriend in a bad, cliche montage of short scenes, yet desperately wanting to quit, Maggie becomes insipid and the movie gets tedious along with her.

The original's romance and pathos were better in their understatement, vulnerability and, oddly for a French film, in their sparser dialogue. Worse yet, in "Point", Bob and J.B. are flat and colorless. J.B. especially lacks the underplayed sensitivity of "Nikita"'s Marco. You win some, you lose some.

In the opening sequence, film buffs will recognize character actor (generally a villain) Geoffrey Lewis, as the gunned down drugstore owner. They may deplore his very early demise.

If you liked "Nikita" and bought its outlandish premise, execution and executions, and if you are intrigued by fine points of difference between twins, "Point" is a quite watchable curiosity. First-timers too may find it entertaining. It's essentially a mainstream fantasy-action film camouflaged by soulful and stylish twists.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel