BLACK CAT (1991) review

After being released in 1990, Luc Besson’s Nikita, with its haywire young woman who after acidentally killing a cop gets a second chance as a government assassin, spawned countless knock-offs, but also more than a few straight remakes. In 1993, John Badham directed Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda as the assassin re-named Nina ; the film was actually close to a shot-for-shot remake, which wasn’t the case of the successful TV series La Femme Nikita, which ran for five seasons and considerably glamorized the concept, with the statuesque Peta Wilson in the title role. And in 2010, it was Maggie Q’s turn to have a try at the character, in another successful series that was this time aimed squarely at teenagers. But the least-known of the Nikita remakes is also the earliest one: Stephen Shin’s Black Cat, which was produced by the D&B Film company (of the Tiger Cage and In The Line Of Duty films) in 1991, just one year after Besson’s seminal film.

It could also be argued that it’s the best iteration of the “Nikita concept”, even coming close to the original. It’s still a very straightforward remake, with all the key scenes replicated, although in often different contexts. Erica (Jade Leung) is a misfit who one night accidentally murders a cop. She’s taken in by the police and brutalized ; but when the day of her trial arrives, a man attempts to murder her, and having subdued him, she escapes the courthouse, before being shot and taken away by a government agency who offers her a deal : to atone for her sins by serving as a government assassin. It turns out it’s not much of a deal, since she’s been implanted with a microchip that gives her excruciating headaches that can only be stopped by a pill only the agency can give her. After a rigorous training, she is to have no other life but the hits she’ll be ordered. Up to this point, Black Cat has differed from Besson’s film by having a much more drawn out “custody, ordeal and trial” sequence, and by introducing the microchip idea, as well as a more high-tech training, including a sequence of virtual simulation. After that, the film follows the Nikita template pretty faithfully, up to an ending that is radically darker and more desperate.

Stepping into a role introduced by Anne Parillaud’s feral performance in the French original, Jade Leung is a quietly unforgettable presence, an emotionally drained shell of a woman who has lost all innocence but has retained an almost childlike sense of defiance. In a way she’s more credible as a hardened but still soft inside assassin than any other actress who got to play the role, and the Hong Kong Film Award she raked in for this, her very first role, was amply deserved. In the role of her superior officer, Simon Yam makes his own a role that was earlier and later essayed by such charismatic actors as Tchéky Karyo and Gabriel Byrne, and suffice it to say Yam does not pale in comparison. The relationship between Nikita/Black Cat and her superior officer is one of the most striking aspects of Nikita and its remake: a love/hate relationship, with Nikita being drawn to, and even a little bit in love with, this authoritative father figure, but also at the same time repelled by the fact that he is the embodiment of her enslavement as an assassin. The central scene where he takes her on a day out, only to give her an impossibly difficult assignment was striking in Besson’s film, where they went to a fancy restaurant and she had to kill someone there ; it is even more striking here, as after some cavorting in a flower garden he orders her to kill the bride in what turns out to be a mob wedding.

Speaking of which, the action in Black Cat is just as gritty as in Nikita and, suprisingly for a D&B film, is very light on the martial arts, opting instead for a down to earth and violent style. Stephen Shin directs confidently, and actually injects the proceedings with a dash of understated sexiness that manages not to detract from the dark tone of the film. Black Cat’s relationship with a kind birdwatcher (Thomas Lam), through which she re-connects with her own humanity, is as affectingly played as in Nikita, and leads to a downer of an ending. In Besson’s film, Nikita vanished into thin air, alone, to live a new life somewhere else. We won’t spoil the ending here, but it is less bittersweet and more desperate, though it doesn’t close the door to happiness for Black Cat. All in all, it is in the image of this remake: less forgiving.

Long Story Short : Ultimately, Black Cat is only a rehash of a pre-existing film. But it is one hell of a rehash, ramping up the darkness, the action and the sexiness.  ***1/2

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