By Michael Sauter
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:54 AM EDT

This is a tale of two Nikitas: The one in Luc Besson’s stylish French thriller is a shaggy street punk who shoots a cop in a druggie stupor and gets pulled from death row by a covert government agency to be trained as a deadly assassin. The Nikita in the subsequent TV series is a relative innocent: a homeless girl wrongly convicted of stabbing a cop, then conscripted by the shadowy ”Section One” for grooming as an all-purpose operative. So what was up with the TV revisionism? Simple, cocreator Joel Surnow (who went on to cocreate 24) says in The Complete First Season’s making-of doc: The USA Network didn’t want a heroine who was a ”criminal.”

And yet this kinder, gentler Nikita was what gave the series its soul. While the original (Anne Parillaud, above) was a ferocious sociopath who regained her humanity after falling in love (where would that have left her for season 2?), the TV Nikita (Peta Wilson, below) starts out with her humanity, and then fights to hold on to it while working for people at least as cold-blooded as the enemies she faced. In a way her predecessor never had to, Wilson’s Nikita underwent an ongoing moral struggle that added an extra layer of tension to the weekly intrigue.

Still, the two Nikitas have plenty in common. Memorably blowing away bad guys in that little black dress and heels, Parillaud’s Nikita helped usher in the still-thriving era of female action figures. Six years later, the TV Nikita helped bring the action-chick movement to the small screen. To watch the drop-dead-gorgeous Wilson dodge bullets during a daring raid — or stride through a nightclub in a swoopingly low-cut dress — is to see where Alias’ Jennifer Garner got her groove from.

Of course, it’s not just about the smooth moves, it’s also about the conflicted emotions beneath all that killer cool. Ultimately, they’re what make the Nikitas such compelling heroines. You don’t just cheer these spy grrrls on, you feel for them. Special Edition: B+ The Complete First Season: B

La Femme Nikita

  • Movie
  • R
  • 115 minutes
  • Luc Besson