Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” may not have created the concept of the cool-as-ice female butt-kicker, but it certainly established a template, one that was directly followed by the feature “Point of No Return” and the USA series that held onto the French name, but was also integral to more movies than I care to count, as well as TV shows like “Alias” and “Dollhouse.”
The new CW action-drama “Nikita” maintains the name from the Besson original, but its influences are wide-ranging and well-mimicked. Wherever there’s a female agent who seems capable of taking out even the best trained and strongest of men, “Nikita” is there. Wherever there’s a shadow government organization stripping young people of their identities and working with no apparent oversight, “Nikita” is there. Wherever there’s an operative so well-prepared that she can play cat-and-mouse with the most prepared operatives in the world and force them to say things like, “She knows every page in our playbook!” or “She knows what we’re going to do before we do it!” “Nikita” is there.
With “Nikita” and “Hellcats,” The CW’s development slate wasn’t long on outside-of-the-box thinking, but with “Hellcats” and “Nikita,” the netlet’s new shows are a reasonably well-executed lot. With a big assist from ace pilot helmer Danny Cannon (“CSI,” “Judge Dredd”), “Nikita” looks great, moves quickly and features star-confirming lead performance by Maggie Q. Low expectations may be causing some folks to slightly over-praise “Nikita,” but it joins CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0” and NBC’s “Undercovers” as part of a fall freshman class that’s surprisingly deep with high octane thrillers.
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As we begin the “Nikita” pilot, Maggie Q’s title character has already been out in the cold (or off the reservation or whatever your spy cliche of choice happens to be) for a long time. Craig Silverstein’s sometimes clunky script uses extensive flashbacks and expositional dialogue to establish that Nikita was transformed from a street waif into a lethal killing machine with a particular aptitude for deception and disappearance. Now, refreshed from her time off the grid, Nikita is back to get revenge on the Organization that made her, including the snake-like bureaucratic chief (Xander Berkeley), the scowly handler/inevitable-love-interst (Shane West) and the nerdy tech guy (Aaron Stafford). [Yes, shades of “Alias” abound.]
Meanwhile, in a mirroring B-story, we meet Lyndsy Fonseca as the young street waif newly recruited to become another Nikita. Through Fonseca’s character, we meet other budding recruits and see the way the Organization trains these kids in everything from combat to etiquette, sexuality and other forms of dissimulation. They’re getting ready for missions that may be counter-intelligence or may be straight-up assassinations. On whose behalf? Well, it’s hard to know.
Fonseca’s portion of the story takes place in a sterile, well-designed lair that might as well be a previously unseen outpost of the Dollhouse, except that these dolls remember what they were and know what they’re being reshaped for, which makes them extra unpredictable.
Fonseca’s character allows the “Nikita” pilot to have it both ways, to be both an origin story and to join the Maggie Q story already in progress. It’s an effective strategy that covers up how much the script is having to explain to viewers and gives the impression that a lot is happening in a pilot that is oddly short on memorable set-pieces. With Cannon at the helm, even the de rigeur confrontations are lean and direct, if not inspired.
Maggie Q is graceful and she knows her way around action choreography so well that you don’t get bogged down in the fact that she’s distractingly thin and slight. No matter how lithe she may be, it’s intellectually hard to buy her as an instrument of blunt force, so instead you have to accept that her strength comes from her preparation and a disturbingly placid and single-minded pursuit. Maggie Q sells that aspect of the character perfectly, though it sometimes creates a sensation of passivity when she isn’t literally kicking butt, which she can do in a variety of costumes, including a red bathing suit and a black evening gown. She is, as we say if we’re wanting to be blurby, both cold and hot.
Again, the Fonseca character allows “Nikita” to have it both ways. If the veteran assassin is cold and calculating, the new assassin is fiery and driven by emotion. Fonseca began this year best known as Future Ted’s less-than-interested daughter on “How I Met Your Mother,” but with “Kick Ass” and this show, she’s in the process of carving out a new niche as a fanboy favorite. She’s spunky and she could give the ladies of “America’s Next Top Model” or “Hellcats” a few lessons about being fierce.
The show’s third major female character is Amanda as the charm school tutor who you can imagine rocking a slinky cocktail dress and then garroting her date with a piece of piano wire. Clarke is, as fans of “The O.C.” already know, tremendous at playing the Black Widow and although the pilot limits the character merely to verbal menace, I hope we get to see her in some action as well.
With the men, you have Xander Berkeley playing perfectly in-type as the menacing boss and Shane West playing ineffectively against type as the gruff-and-growling tough guy. I reserve the right to back down on my incredulity regarding West’s character if it turns out that he’s really an emo softie and he’s just putting on an act for work. The jury is still out on Ashton Holmes as a more experienced recruit who helpfully explains the nature of the gig to both the audience and Fonseca’s character.
“Nikita” has a narrative gloominess that’s often at odds with its escapist pacing. Both of the main female characters are truly unhappy women facing a task they don’t relish and it’s hard for the audience to feel pleasure in tasks our heroes aren’t enjoying. Conversely, though, Nikita isn’t going to enjoy anything other than success at her goals of annihilating the people who made her, which may give the show a finite shelf-life. The pilot sets up a more serialized story than target-of-the-week adventures. We’ll see how long that can play out, but I’m willing to take that journey at least part-way with Maggie Q, Fonseca and Melinda Clarke.
The CW’s “Nikita” premieres on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 9 p.m. ET.