Black Cat (1991)

Country: Hong Kong
Director: Stephen Shin
Starring: Jade Leung, Simon Yam, Thomas Lam, Zdenek Juricek, Yvonne Drinovz, Curtis Fraser, Denise Stauffer, Jordy Shane, Audrey Rene
Writer: Lun Ah, Bo Shun Chan, Lam Tan Ping
Editors: Ting Hung Kuo, Wong Chau On, Wing-ming Wong
Music: Danny Chung
Cinematographer: Kin Keung Lee
Producers: Stephen Shin, Dickson Poon
Original Title: Hei Mao

In the twenty-two years since its release, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita has indelibly burnt itself onto the minds of action fans. This is best illustrated by the fact that it spawned an American remake called Point of No Return or Assassin (depending on what country you’re in) starring Bridget Fonda, and two television series, the first with Peta Wilson, which ran for four seasons, and a new series with Maggie Q in the lead.

I am sure most of you are familiar with Besson’s La Femme Nikita. For those who aren’t, a quick overview of the plot goes something like this. Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is a junkie. Desperately in need of a fix, she and some of her drug addled buddies break into a pharmacist in an attempt to score some goodies to ease their pain. The burglary doesn’t go to plan and the police arrive on the scene with guns-a-blazin’. After the shoot-out, Nikita is the only one of her party left alive but seemingly in a catatonic state. A police officer comes to her aid only to have his brains blown out by Nikita, who barely knows what she is doing. She is then sentenced to thirty years in prison for her crime.

At the point of being imprisoned, she is made an offer. She can either be trained as a assassin or the sentence can stand. She chooses to be trained. But that means the she becomes a part of the system that she has been rebelling against as an outcast junkie. But she also believes she is tougher than the ‘system’. She thinks she can complete the training and still be the same anti-social miscreant that she was when she began. But slowly, almost like a military boot camp, her individuality is beaten out of her. They begin to mold her into a cool killing machine.

While I agree that Besson’s Nikita is an action classic, and to some people this may be sacrilege, but in some ways I think that Point of No Return / Assassin has stood the test of time better than La Femme Nikita. Although only made three years previous, the original was definitely a film made at a certain time. Besson made his film, stylistically, cutting edge. But what is cutting edge one year, is passé the next. Point of No Return / Assassin travels a more timeless path and this serves the film well. One of the elements that helps the film is the choice of music. Put simply, I hate Eric Sera (composer for Nikita), but think Nina Simone is pretty fucking cool. In Point of No Return / Assassin the great songs by Simone drive the story along. In fact, the code-name selected for Maggie Blowjob (well that’s what Fonda calls herself in the flick) is ‘Nina’. Songs like ‘Feelin’ Good’ which struts out when Maggie has finally been released into society emphasise the feeling of freedom that Maggie must be experiencing. At the end of the movie, when Maggie has to leave everything behind her ‘Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair’ emotes a feeling of melancholy and loss that sums up the character perfectly. I know that’s incredibly superficial, and Point of No Return / Assassin would never exist with Nikita, but what can I say, I am a slave to pop culture.

But Point of No Return / Assassin was not the first remake of La Femme Nikita. That honour goes to the Hong Kong action film Black Cat. I wont bullshit you and say Black Cat is Hong Kong action classic — and that’s possibly because it feels more like an American film (but I’ll talk more about that later) — but it certainly serves up enough thrills for those who aren’t interested in character development.

The film opens late one night in an un-named part of the USA, and what us country boys, who grew up on Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit, would call a K-whopper is barreling down a highway. The muscle bound trucker (Zdenek Juricek) decides to stop at a regular haunt on route, the Liberty Truck Stop and get a bite to eat. He swaggers in, wearing a mesh top that makes him look like he just stepped off the set of Miami Vice, and lights himself a big fat stogie while awaiting some service. There is a staff member out front, a young girl called Catherine (Jade Leung) — but I’ll call her Cat for this review — who is cleaning and polishing the cutlery, but she is too lazy to serve the trucker. Out of frustration, the trucker calls to the owner of the establishment, Denny, for a bit of service.

Denny, of course, verbally chastises Cat for being so lazy. She gives him a dirty look, and to prove she’s a bad-ass who doesn’t give a fuck, she shears a tea-towel in half with one of the steak knives she has been cleaning. Later, Cat serves the trucker his meal, and as he has been on the road for ten days and is a little bit pent up, he pats her on the behind. She pulls away, so instead he grabs at one of her breasts. She picks up a fork and jams it into his other hand, pinning it to the table. No means NO mister!

The trucker backhands her, and Denny hearing the commotion rushes out and fires her – throwing her possessions out into the carpark. She goes. But she is angry – incredibly angry. Outside in the carpark, she plays a harmonica and waits for the trucker. Later, after his meal (and having his hand bandaged) the trucker walks out and finds her sitting near his truck. Still horny, he asks her if she’d ‘like to play some more?’ She agrees, for thirty-dollars. He pokes the cash down her cleavage and unzips his pants, preparing to have his gear-stick felated. She drops to her knees, but rather than using her mouth on the aforementioned gear-stick, she reaches around behind and picks up a sizeable rock, which she pounds into his member. He drops to his knees. Then she punches him in the head, and he collapses to the ground. If that wasn’t enough, she starts laying into him with her boots. There is no doubt that Cat has some severe anger management issues.

Having claimed her revenge, Cat walks off. However, the trucker isn’t done yet. He gets up, grabs her from behind and hurls her through the truck stop window. Denny calls the cops, as the trucker follows Cat’s crashing body into the building. After upending a billiard table that Cat is hiding under, the trucker then picks her up and throws her into a jukebox. Then he proceeds to kick the shit out of her. As the trucker is about to send her into the next world, Denny, now armed with a pistol, fires a shot into the air. The kicking stops. Denny warns the trucker off, who backs away and begins to leave, believing that he now has delivered his share of hard vengeance.

But Cat just wont quit. She picks up a shard of broken glass from the shattered window, and charges at the trucker. She stabs the glass shard repeatedly into his torso. But the big guy won’t go down. Denny then, somewhat foolishly, tries to intervene. I say foolishly, because Cat and the trucker went past normal behavior three fight sequences ago. Denny stands between Cat and the trucker, but not for long, as the trucker swats him away with a chair. Denny flies into a pinball machine and is rendered unconscious. However, the pistol he was holding clatters on the floor next to Cat. The trucker advances on Cat and is just about to crown her with the chair, when she picks up the gun and pumps a few rounds into stomach. He collapses dead on top of her. And now completely exhausted, she passes out.

The police arrive at the scene. An officer hauls the dead trucker of Cat and tries to revive her. She regains consciousness with a start, and with the gun still in her hand, shoots the officer, killing him instantly. In custody, the police are not happy about the death of a member of their fraternity, and Cat gets a rough time, especially from the sister of the murdered officer, who expresses her grief with a billy-club. But as you should know by now, dear reader, that Cat is not one to just sit there and take it. She quickly turns the tables, snatches the billy-club and starts beating the crap out of the female officer. A whole squad of cops have to be sent in to restrain her, as she goes about another violent and uncontrollable rampage.

The carnage doesn’t stop, at least for now. At the courthouse, as Cat uses the bathroom, a hitman comes for her. It is never explained who the hitman works for? The cops? Luckily for Cat, even though she is handcuffed to a rail inside the cubicle, using a piece from the plunger in the cistern, she frees herself and knocks out the hitman. She takes his gun, and then running out into the corridor firing, she tries to make a break for freedom.

The opening of Black Cat takes the position that La Femme Nikita was a good film, but was not violent and crazy enough. Nikita in hindsight looks positively somnambulent compared to Cat, who is just relentlessly angry and crazy. Outside the courthouse, she runs through the streets — usual mayhem ensues; bullets flying, people screaming — and into an alley. From a side-street in front of her, a car pulls out, and the driver produces a rifle, takes aim, and fires. Cat is hit. There is no blood, so I guess that it’s a tranquilizer shot.

Next she is operated on, and a microchip, known as the ‘Black Cat’ is planted in her brain. Then she is spirited away by helicopter to a top secret facility run by the CIA. She awakens in a stark white room – it looks more like a cell – and she is in a great deal of pain – a bad headache. A man named Brian (Simon Yam), who is dressed in black enters her room and offers her a pill that will relieve the headache. He then explains that she has been certified dead, and now has the opportunity to work for the government.

Cat hasn’t changed overnight, and is still the same anti-social misfit, so she grabs Brian’s gun, shoots him, and in her underwear, runs out into the complex looking, once more, for a way out. Of course she is trapped. There is no way out. Brian, of course, was wearing a bullet proof vest, and is Cat’s handler during her duration at the training centre, where she is taught to be an effective, and unemotional assassin. After a year of physical and weapons training, Cat is unleashed upon the world. After proving herself, during a contrived test, she is sent to Hong Kong to assassinate underworld figures. As a cover story, she poses as a photo journalist for magazine company, which is a front for the CIA.

While in Hong Kong, she falls for a guy named Alan (Thomas Lam) who works at a bird sanctuary. Being a skilled assassin (without emotions) and being a fun-loving girlfriend is a difficult double act for Cat, and she finds her emerging humanity, a hindrance to her profession. For next assignment, she is sent to Japan. Unwisely, for a woman who lives in a world of ‘kill or be killed’, she chooses to marry Alan and brings him to Japan with her. Of course, he doesn’t know she is a killer. And as the story plays out, the CIA become increasingly disturbed at their relationship. So much so that they implement a plan to end it, by killing Alan.

In some ways it is very right that Hong Kong film-makers should remake La Femme Nikita and possibly claim it as their own. After all, strong female characters have long been the hallmark of HK cinema. The west seems to think they invented something new in Aliens, with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, a strong, empowered female character. Or even with Thelma and Louise. The press treated Nikita the same way, suggesting that the film was groundbreaking action film, with its depiction of a strong central female character.

And the line still gets peddled today — watch Salt with Angelina Jolie. The features on the blue-ray disk are littered with the same old spiel — groundbreaking woman’s role. Not to deride any of the films above — but that publicity line, and that’s what it is, just some PR — is bullshit! Hong Kong have been doing it for forty-five years (I am sure it’s much longer than that — but my knowledge of HK cinema only reaches back to the mid sixties). So if Hong Kong film-makers riff on a film, that riffs on Hong Kong cinema is that such a bad thing? Actually I’d like to see just a smidge more creativity in the story department, but you get my meaning.

Black Cat is brisk, violent and reasonably entertaining with some good stunts and effects. If it has a flaw, it is that it sets such a brisk, heart pounding pace at the beginning that it is virtually impossible to keep that level of dynamism up, and sure enough, once Cat goes into training the film slows down. It’s not boring, but it is less defined than Besson’s Nikita or Badham’s Assassin / Point of No Return. The dehumanising and rebuilding of Cat at the CIA facility doesn’t ring true, as for the majority of her time there, she still has the same anti-social chip on her shoulder. But yet, when it becomes time for her to go out into the real world and kick ass, she does so willingly. Adding to the confused mess, is that Cat’s first assignment – which is really a test – is structured so that she feels betrayed by her own team. Yet, afterward, despite her initial anger, she chooses to ride with it.

I am guessing that her obedience has something to do with the Black Cat chip in her head, which is supposed to make her a better weapon. However, this is never truly defined in the movie, and all it seems to do is give her headaches, which need special medication. But maybe I want too much from the film. After all, it is primarily a slick action flick, and to emphasize the point of what a crowd-pleaser this film is intended to be, the film borrows rather loosely from the Stallone action film handbook. The brutality that the cops inflict upon when she is first apprehended, could be taken straight from First Blood – yes, they even have the fire hose scene. And as Cat’s physical training regimen, montage an all, with dreadful synth-rock music, could be lifted from Rocky IV.

After a somewhat stodgy middle, once Cat is released into society, Black Cat kicks into gear for the last portion of the film which features plenty of shooting and exploding police cars, which entertaining though, that it is, seems more befitting and American action film. A part of me wonders if this film was partially aimed at a Western audience. A large amount of this film in in English — the opening scenes in the USA, and much of her training at the facility. I guess, if it’s the CIA that’s training her, than that makes her an American agent. However, many of the cast members appear to speak their lines phonetically and as such, much of the dialogue is stilted. But the film is not the type that you watch for the dialogue. It’s about insane action and mayhem perpetrated by a chick who is easy on the eyes (well, at least that’s the male perspective). But back to my point about the American market, maybe as La Femme Nikita was in French, that the makers of Black Cat thought that if they could make virtually the same film, but accessible to American audiences (that is, they don’t have to read subtitles), then possibly they could have a hit. Admittedly that is all conjecture on my behalf, based solely on the fact that this Hong Kong action film is decidedly American in tone.

As discussed, La Femme Nikita would be remade by Hollywood in 1993, and the first television series would appear in 1997. But Black Cat would not be denied her place, and she would also turn up in several sequels. First, in 1997, called Black Cat 2: the Assassination of President Yeltsin, which is a more traditional spy thriller, relying on Bondian tropes to fill the action quota. The opening ski chase sequence could be lifted from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, mixed with A View to a Kill (thankfully without the Beach Boys musical cue). Despite more pyrotechnics (and helicopters), Black Cat 2 is not a patch on its predecessor. Then there’s Black Cat in Jail (2000) and The Black Cat Agent Files (2003). I have not seen the last two – and apparently they are little more than ‘in name only’ sequels. However, they are an interesting footnote from Nikita’s legacy.

This post originally appeared on Teleport City, April 19, 2011.

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