Those who saw La Femme Nikita, a French-Italian thriller released here in 1991, may have been impressed by how well it duplicated junky American thrillers. It had strong visuals, pseudo-complex themes of individual freedom, and lots of people dying in bloody slow motion. Point of No Return, the American remake of Nikita, is a duplication of a duplication: Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, figures it can make better American pulp than the French can. As it turns out, Hollywood is right.
Adapted by Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros, and solidly directed by John Badham, Point of No Return doesn’t skimp on the slow-mo carnage. Badham, a gifted director with a keen sense of momentum, hasn’t done much of note since the extraordinarily exciting WarGames in 1983. He’s in his element here. A shoot-out at the beginning manages some hallucinatory terror, even though you’ve seen a thousand variations on it; another gunfight, in a crowded restaurant kitchen, couldn’t be staged more effectively. Badham also knows how to handle the quieter scenes, which Nikita‘s director (Luc Besson) didn’t, particularly. A round of applause, then, for the return of a good director long presumed dead.
The original Nikita (played by Anne Parillaud) has been replaced by Maggie (Bridget Fonda), a pathetic, strung-out street punk who kills a cop in cold blood and is captured. In the police station, Maggie sticks a pencil through an officer’s hand; later, when hearing her sentence (death by lethal injection), she tries to punch and kick her way out of the courtroom. All of this has not gone unnoticed by Bob (Gabriel Byrne), a government operative. Admiring Maggie’s spirit, Bob saves her from execution and offers her another life: She can go on killing — for the government. She must undergo intensive training, diction lessons, a complete beauty makeover. The alternative? A nice coffin. Maggie accepts.
Whatever you thought of Nikita (I didn’t dislike it), it had an intriguing Pygmalion angle on the familiar assassin theme; its setting, however, made it seem vaguely futuristic, as if the corrupt, murderous French government it depicted were a paranoid sci-fi fantasy. Point of No Return, set in America, is much more believable: Who would scoff at the idea of the United States turning sociopathic killers into salaried sociopathic killers? Most of us are entirely eager to buy into everything the movie shows us, including the in-house charm school where assassins learn table manners — the better to get into fancy restaurants and whack the VIPs dining there.
When the government relocates Maggie to Venice, California, she finds herself falling in love with J.P. (Dermot Mulroney), an amiable photographer who lives in her apartment building. For the film to work, J.P. must never discover what Maggie does; thus, J.P. is the biggest dunce in recent movies. In a near-hilarious scene (it was funny in Nikita, also), government agent Bob visits Maggie and J.P., posing as her “Uncle Bob,” and invents a touching story about Maggie’s childhood. It’s total transparent bullshit, but J.P. swallows it without blinking. Later, in a New Orleans hotel, J.P. almost catches Maggie in the bathroom trying to pick off a woman in the Mardi Gras parade; Maggie foils him by hiding her huge rifle in the sudsy bathtub. Smooth.
Maggie, of course, has grown to hate her job; she wants a life that doesn’t involve explosives. Her transformation into a human being with a conscience doesn’t come off as dippy, thanks largely to Bridget Fonda’s performance. Her Maggie has an awful weight in her stomach; she’s like a seasoned alley cat who yearns for the warm safety of a house cat, but domestication still sticks in her craw. Towards the climax, we see the monster Maggie might become: “The Cleaner” (Harvey Keitel), a comically deadpan assassin who butchers innocents as blandly as a Terminator would. But wouldn’t Maggie’s life with J.P. — an acceptance of a conventional woman’s role — make her just as robotic? Whatever her decision, she won’t be her own woman. Fonda’s is a classic trapped performance, pulled this way and that by baffling emotions. Point of No Return is no more than well-crafted exploitation, but Fonda convinces us that Maggie’s identity crisis is worth at least a passing thought.