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Point of No Return

(aka The Assassin, John Badham, USA, 1993)


 

Value

 

I have recently been revisiting the early 1990s. It is an intriguing, generally despised and ignored period in the history of popular cinema. This is the interim phase after all the intriguing little teen and horror movies of the 1980s, but before the explosion of, on the one hand, Tarantino & company and, on the other hand, the World Cinema from Iran, Taiwan and other places finally making a dent on general cinephile consciousness.

 

To set the scene: we are talking about the mainstream cinema of Joel Schumacher, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker and Phil Joanou; Flatliners (1990), Final Analysis (1992) and Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991); the moment when (to some connoisseurs) Scorsese sank to the level of (re)making a mere thriller, Cape Fear (1991). Slick, tricky, contrived movies, ‘MTV films’ to many commentators.

 

Few directors fit this forgotten, maligned period of commercial filmmaking more perfectly than John Badham. One decade after this hi-tech teen movie WarGames (1983), long after his surprise success with Saturday Night Fever in 1977, Badham was assigned to helm Point of No Return. In fact, Badham’s big-screen career was soon to wind down after this; today, like Michael Schultz (also in his late 70s) of Car Wash (1976) fame, and Stephen Surjik (a younger guy who had his one great cinema moment with Wayne’s World 2 in 1993), Badham guides episodes of the TV sci-fi/fantasy series Constantine and Arrow.

 

It is quickly became received critical wisdom that Point of No Return is an inferior and unnecessary, over-calculated remake of Luc Besson's French hit Nikita (1990). What's the point of duplicating Besson’s plot and characters, simply with new actors speaking in English? Yet, if appropriation artists of the last decade and a half (such as the Australian painter Imants Tillers) have taught us anything, it is that even the identical copy of an artwork can reveal new and striking things to us.

 

Point of No Return is not exactly like Nikita. The script (by Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros) is more conventionally sturdy, and the action set pieces have a touch of Hong Kong master John Woo (Hard Boiled [1992]). Yet this version mines the real core of Besson's film more richly than Besson himself did.

 

Point of No Return is the type of movie that cinephiles are (in one way or another) trained not to like. It is full of grandiloquent stylistic flourishes, ‘cool’ scenes of violence and death (the Woo brand), and a heavy overlay of pop classics on the soundtrack: in other words, the complete early ‘90s ambience. And, to compound all sins, there’s the lingering trace of another director long loathed by Serge Daney-type purists: Besson. To put it politely, a film of little to no value.

 

Yet Point of No Return – precisely because of, not despite, its plastic, artificial, slick qualities – is a movie I as find poignantly expressive today as I did in 1993. The lack of a conventionally ‘believable’ psychology makes its discombobulated parade of scenarios and situations even more nightmarishly compelling. The Woman Nikita – literally translating the original La Femme Nikita, which eventually returned as the title of the Canadian TV series – is a parable of female selfhood made unstable and unliveable by a very scary, patriarchal world.

 

In this telling of the tale, Maggie (Bridget Fonda) is a drug-addicted criminal saved from execution by a government agent (Gabriel Byrne) who promptly trains her and puts her to work as a political assassin – but without the alibi of any clear or coherent state ideology.

 

Maggie is simultaneously groomed to kill like a machine and smile like a lady. At every turn, all men give her murderously mixed messages, and no woman can be the mother figure she so wistfully pines for. And every ten minutes, it seems, Maggie is re-invented on screen as a new person: new hair, clothes, mannerisms, mission. Her ‘inner self’ is a vertiginous void of gestures and appearances on rapid shuffle.

 

Where Besson's style was punk-chic, Badham tends towards a chillier, SF aura – one that exploits well the dislocation and unreality of this grim, nightmarish tale. Hans Zimmer's score brilliantly builds upon the haunting songs of Nina Simone. In the ambiguous portrait gallery of men offered by Point of No Return, both Gabriel Byrne and Dermot Mulroney are captivating in lead roles – but do be sure to stick around for Harvey Keitel's indelibly cold ten minutes as “Victor the cleaner”.

 

These days, we are hearing many passionate calls to reinstate a consideration of value into film criticism. We are tired, it seems, of hearing movies discussed as merely ‘interesting’ phenomena, symptomatic expressions of one socio-cultural trend or another. What about defining and defending the quality of really good films? I have much sympathy for this position.  

 

Yet, at the same time, I suspect the direction in which this campaign for value inevitably takes us: toward, once more, a hardening of separation between supposedly high and low culture, between that which is assumed to be art and that which is cast out as vulgar, spectacular entertainment. A world in which Badham’s Point of No Return will be very lucky to rate a mention in anybody’s canon.

 

It’s a comment or a rebuke I, personally, have often received: sure Adrian, you can compare Pasolini’s Salò to some grubby Reality TV program … but are they really of the same value? What I truly think is of value is to resist and unlearn the reflex of asking that very conventionally-minded question.

MORE Badham: Blue Thunder, Nick of Time

© Adrian Martin June 1994 / March 2016


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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