So I recently watched Single White Female, which put me back on a Bridget Fonda kick, and reminded me that she was always quite good, and promised to get even better. She always brought a little edge to her line readings, adding a little something going on in her mind, like her terse/cheery delivery of "Want some tea?" from that film, or a small but pungent moment in A Simple Plan when he handled a used teddy bear, then smelled her fingers. It would kind of seem that perhaps this film, the first that she tried to carry herself, might have disillusioned her, but for whatever reason I see that she has retired from acting and hasn't had a role since 2002. She also had a horrible car accident, and married Danny Elfman. Which is too bad (the retirement, not the marriage), because she was very good and perhaps we didn't appreciate her enough when we had her.
This movie always had a hard road ahead of it. It is the American remake of La Femme Nikita, and at the time was just not the kind of movie Americans knew what to do with. It is also directed by John Badham, who has a special knack of turning everything he touches to shit. Short Circuit. Stakeout. The Hard Way. Another Stakeout. My God, the banality. The sheer banality. Of course, he also did Saturday Night Fever and a good version of Dracula. So who knows. Maybe he just got banal in the 80s.
Speaking of the 80s, this film also caused me to have a certain song in my head for days on end.
Anyway, one has to understand that at the time, this kind of movie didn't really fit into any categories, back when female action heroes were kind of new and shocking. I recall seeing La Femme Nikita at the movies with my friend, both of us expecting to see whatever new French drama was out, and both being dazzled by the numerous shocks, reversals, escapes and action were presented, especially as we went in expecting a talky drama. We both came out saying "I'm not sure what I just saw, but it was super cool."
The surprise on re-watching here was that it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was on the first go-round, and follows the beats of the French film quite closely. We open with some druggy squatters in Washington, DC, leaving to break into a convenience store / pharmacy to get a fix. We note that Bridget as Maggie is among them, and see her walk down an alley in fun drug-o-vision. The robbery turns into a shootout, and Maggie kills a cop with a shot right to the head. She stabs a cop trying to book her in the hand with a pencil. At her sentencing, where she gets the death sentence, she violently attacks people in the courtroom, and has to be taken out by force. We see her killed by lethal injection. This is where I think Americans of the time weren't ready for, because our heroine is such an awful, unredeeming person, and worse--a drug addict! WHO could get behind her? These kind of dark, truly bad antiheroes, especially women, we're not at all welcome at the time. Not to mention that this whole dark, nihilistic world was something still confined to comic books around then.
Maggie wakes in a white room, where she is told that as far as the world knows, she is dead, and even had a funeral. Gabriel Byrne as Bob (they couldn't have thought of a better name?) tells her that she can either enter his training program and serve the state, or be killed. She tries to escape, and he shoots her in the leg. It was much more shocking and brutal in the French version. After a few more puerile attacks, she starts to be brought in line, and to get more privileges in her room, such as a TV and some of the Nina Simone records she loves. She is kept in this kind of movie-only underground training facility with huge brick arches and overhead fans with lights placed above them so they can create visually appealing shadows. Upstairs she is greeted by Anne Bancroft, who trains her in manners and etiquette. But Maggie is still doing her silly rebellions, and word finally comes down from program head Miguel Ferrer that if she doesn't shape up fast, they'll just kill her. Maggie relents, and goes to Bancroft for help. Bancroft, by the way, is marvelous in this role. We're supposed to believe that everyone there was once pulled from the streets and forced into service in exchange for their lives, and Bancroft shows her steely edge beneath the surface pleasantness she projects. I came away with a new respect for her, just after her few scenes in this relatively trashy movie.
Anyway, we next see Maggie months later, fully civilized, with about the stupidest hairdo known to mankind. I think this hairdo was largely responsible for the failure of this film, as as I don't think anyone wants to see their badass female assassins with a big dumb hairdo with these idiotic wings coming out the sides. Maggie's hair for the rest of the film wasn't quite as bad as I recalled, but at the time I remember thinking that they shot down their whole movie with this one moronic hair choice. Anyway, Maggie is taken to a nice restaurant, her first time out of the underground lair in quite some time, and she thinks it is a graduation reward. But at dinner, Bob gives her a gun and points out two people she is to kill.
This big moment in the French film came off as a little squelched here because at that time popular American movies really didn't have these big, mean reversals, or have our heroes act in such awful ways. And something about the original film being foreign left one a bit more open to anything. Anyway, Bob tells her to escape through a window in the bathroom, which she soon discovers is bricked up. So she has to have a big shootout in the restaurant kitchen and escape through a laundry chute, a sequence that was electrifying in the French version but is just average here. She walks back--let's not get into how she knew where the secret underground lair is--and feels chumped that the bricked-up window was a whole part of the test. Now she's a full-fledged secret assassin, given a new identity and a code name, Nina, after her favorite, Nina Simone.
Now, one of the things about the original is that the Bob character was played by Tcheky Kayro, who is smolderingly hot, and was older but not that much older than Anne Parillaud as the assassin, and they had a convincing simmering passion. I guess Gabriel Byrne is a reasonable replacement, but he has never really spelled hot sex, and neither does Bridget Fonda, and so this whole undercurrent of thwarted romance doesn't really go anywhere. So Maggie moves to L.A., to a hilariously cliche 90s ocean boardwalk montage, and guess what? She just happens into an apartment RIGHT on the ocean! It's a fixer-upper, so I'm sure rent is within the reach of like, anyone. On the same day she also happens into a new boyfriend, JP, who is a lightly-bearded, slightly long-haired, über-90s hunk. My God, were the 90s REALLY the worst thing that ever happened? I didn't realize he was Dermot Mulroney at the time, but I did realize that he was super-irritating.
Maggie goes to the grocery store where there is a long comic sequence about her not knowing what to buy that comes off more strange than anything. Then she has a date with JP where she put a canned ravioli half in her mouth and approaches him to eat the other half, a la Lady and the Tramp. The problem is, it's fucking ridiculous, for one, and for two, it looks like some hideous fake tongue that she's coming at his face with. In here there are montages of them fixing up her place and JP moving in, him taking photos of her (he's an amateur photographer), and their developing romance, and in here the Nina Simone songs are coming thick and fast on the soundtrack. It's enough to make you say: "Please refrain from killing off all my pleasant associations with Nina Simone's music." And also... given the prevalence of Nina Simone's politicized songs in support of black rights... I'm not sure making her the emblem of some whitey-white chick fixing up her faboo oceanfront apartment in L.A. is really that appropriate?
SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, four months pass, and Maggie almost forgets that she's a trained assassin. Then she suddenly gets a call that asks for "Nina." These were successfully shocking moments in the French film that somehow just don't work as well here. She goes to a hotel, and all she has to do is deliver a room service tray to a bunch of international baddies. She does, and it looks like easy money, when the room upstairs explodes as she's leaving the hotel. She's surprised, and we find out later that we're supposed to understand she is having moral compunctions. Hi sweetie, you're a TRAINED ASSASSIN. As such, I don't think she should be surprised when she has to assassinate people.
By now JP is getting suspicious. Maggie never talks about her past, and is emotionally clammed-up in ways that are not successfully conveyed by the movie, despite Fonda's best efforts. I would think the fact that she somehow has an income despite NEVER working would be the prime focus of suspicion, but no, it's that she's emotionally remote. Bob stops by, gives her a bit of cover, and delivers two tickets to a fabulous New Orleans vacation. They go, and are in the hotel when--Maggie gets a job! Dang it, she thought she was on VACATION! She suddenly locks herself in the bathroom, saying she has to take a bath, and finds parts to assemble a fucking giant high-powered rifle. These are moments that made you go HOLY SHIT in the French film, but somehow land with a squish here. Then, guess what? JP decides that RIGHT THEN, through the closed bathroom door, would be a great time to propose marriage. This causes many a tearful eye as Maggie is trying to aim through her rifle sights, but the effect for me was just to feel manipulated and get annoyed at JP for being an emotional fucktard. Hey guys: don't propose marriage through closed bathroom doors if you're expecting a positive response, okay? Make a note of it. But in the movie, JP gets all insistent and demanding of an answer, and aside from making him seem like a big dumb ass it is just abundantly obvious that the movie is doing all this to manipulate you. I'm not sure it WORKED in the French version, you're obviously still being manipulated, but I think they just did a better job of making you not mind being manipulated.
Now Maggie wants out. She asks Bob if he can help her get out, but he says he can't. Also, if you think about it, this organization saved her life and turned it completely around, so saying "Thanks, but can't I just do what I want?" now seems a little unrealistic. But whatever. She has a big job now: she has to impersonate the girlfriend of a Russian mobster to get into his computer and steal nuclear secrets. The job gets screwed and they are forced to kill the girlfriend, which leaves them with a body to dispose of, which means the job may be off, which means they'll probably be killed. They have to call in a "cleaner," who will get rid of the bodies. He arrives in the form of Harvey Kietel, who pours acid on the bodies and--oops, seems that one wasn't quite dead. Maggie realizes that shit is getting crazy and has to whip herself into shape fast.
We find out that Ferrer has instructed the cleaner to kill Maggie once the job is done. She impersonates the girlfriend, gets the nuclear secrets (which conveniently fit onto a 3.5 floppy, hahaha), and they escape. It then comes to kill-or-be-killed time with the cleaner, which happens in a relatively unexciting car-off-cliff moment. Maggie escapes, goes home, and it's time for the big talk with JP. Next morning, Bob arrives, and JP tells him Maggie is gone. I like the moment where Bob rips the covers off the bed, as though she just MIGHT be under there! Bob leaves, and catches a glimpse of Maggie through the morning mist, but reports her as dead, essentially setting her free. We all know that this excuse is going to last about three minutes, until they discover there was no woman in the car, but we accept it, because the movie's almost over. Maggie escapes into the mist, toward an uncertain fate, and hopefully better hair days. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
Well, it wasn't as bad as I expected, which should not be misunderstood to saying it was good. The main impression is that it just doesn't pack the impact of the French film, and although it matches them practically beat for beat, everything here is just a little fuzzy and soft. So many moments in the French film were so shocking and electrifying--like when she is first presented with a gun and silencer at dinner, or has to perform a hit while on vacation--and the way they're done here, they're just muted. In part it's because this film was a bit ahead of what Americans could handle at the time--we're prepared for a bit more nihilism in our action now--but also... there's just some indefinable difference between the way the films are shot and edited that smoothes the edges off of this one and makes it a bit dull.
What else to say? Bridget Fonda does fine, and another director might have supported her to go even further in her ruthlessness. I guess that might be the difference: the French film was about this hot woman who was a feral killer, which only made her more hot--and I'm not even straight. This one... it's as if there's some fear of making Maggie not really likable. It's not that it holds back, most things from the French film are there... it's just that it seems they can't really get their minds around having a female main character and not having her be a good, likable, relatable person, so in place of that... they don't really know what to do. So they just go through the motions.
It would be pointless to remake this now, after there has been a TV series and so many other films have taken off with unlikable heroines, but still, we want you back, Bridget. Come back. We need you.
Not really, unless you really love the French film.