A more recent twist on the general narrative arc [of the hitwoman] places the female assassin as a child, perhaps orphaned, but certainly appropriated by a handler, who is trained from an early age, in a morally perverse adoption scenario, to become the ideal robotic killer….
The female version of the professional killer—the hitwoman—has received considerable fan attention and some critical scrutiny because of the success of the Nikita character, introduced in La femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990) and reprised in two television series. Point of No Return (John Badham, 1989), starring Bridget Fonda, was a Hollywood remake of the Besson film. In both films the female assassin, already an adult, was engineered after her arrest for murder, and her supposed death, to become an unemotional killer who would follow the orders of her handler without question. The handler is an agent for a mysterious quasi-governmental agency. A more recent twist on the general narrative arc places the female assassin as a child, perhaps orphaned, but certainly appropriated by a handler, who is trained from an early age, in a morally perverse adoption scenario, to become the ideal robotic killer. Such is the case with the Netflix film Kate, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate and Woody Harrelson as her mentor or handler Varrick (Nicolas-Troyan). The childhood scenes appear rather briefly in flashback, and the training, with its Pygmalion-Galatea subtext, is reduced from its Nikita length. The Kate narrative begins with a hit in Japan performed by the female assassin under compromised circumstances.
Kate’s handlers give her instructions through an earbud communications system, as do Nikita’s, allowing in both cases for distancing from the actions of the assassin. The remote, mysterious command structure differs markedly from the very personal contact and mentoring of Léon (Jean Reno) by his employer (not “handler”) Tony (Danny Aiello) in Léon the Professional (Luc Besson, 1994). Like Léon, however, Kate follows a code which does not permit the harming of innocents. Léon informs his young protégée Mathilda (Natalie Portman) in her “training” of the rule “no women, no children.” Kate balks at shooting her target in the opening scene of the film because he is accompanied by his daughter, who would have to witness the hit on her father. She finally decides to fire, killing the father and traumatizing the daughter.
Soon after the hit, Kate begins to experience unexplained physical symptoms. Her slight cough, soon turning to nausea and weakness, causes her to miss a shot at the next target, oyabun (boss)Kijima. She had told her handler that this was to be her last hit, after which she wanted to retire. A doctor tells her that she has been poisoned with Polonium 204 and that she has probably only a day to live. She swears revenge on those responsible and forces the doctor to give her a supply of stimulants.
Like Nikita, Kate is controlled by a shadowy agency, but this film grafts onto the Nikita mold the essential narrative of D. O. A. (Rudolph Maté, 1950). Kate must also engage in factional combat with the yakuza, so that the identity of her real enemy (or enemies) entails multiple possibilities. An important addition over the Nikita palimpsest is the daughter of the man shot by Kate in the opening scene. As Léon does with Mathilda, the initially unwilling Kate takes the daughter, Ani, under her wing, although she conceals from Ani the facts about the death of her father. The outspoken and foul-mouthed Ani, clearly modeled on Mathilda, differs from the model because some of her yakuza “family” members want her dead. Mathilda was threatened by the rogue DEA agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman), responsible for the death of her parents and brother. The role played by Kate in the death of Ani’s father is not revealed to Ani until the closing scenes of the film. Viewers familiar with the work of John Woo would be reminded of the rather similar predicament of the titular killer (Chow Yun-fat) in Woo’s masterpiece The Killer (1989), who accidentally damages the vision of a nightclub singer (Sally Yeh) in his latest hit, and who conceals the truth from her as he slowly becomes emotionally attached to her.
Like Maggie (codename Nina) (Bridget Fonda) in Point of No Return, the American remake of La femme Nikita, Kate is targeted for termination by the chief of her organization because of her apparent unreliability and rebelliousness.
Unlike Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien), the hapless protagonist of D. O. A., who ingests the poison which will kill him during a trip to San Francisco, escaping the confined atmosphere of his symbolically named hometown Banning, Kate is betrayed by those closest to her, specifically her handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson). Like Maggie (codename Nina) (Bridget Fonda) in Point of No Return, the American remake of La femme Nikita, Kate is targeted for termination by the chief of her organization (in Kate’s case, her handler; in Maggie’s, her handler’s boss Kaufman [Miguel Ferrer]) because of her apparent unreliability and rebelliousness.
Until the closing scenes of the film, the resolution of the Kate story is inescapably noir: betrayed by her handler, dying in agony, the outcome for this “dishonorable killer” (as oyabun Kijima calls her) seems blackly hopeless. The final scenes revert to a more traditionally “heroic bloodshed” mode, with Kate, now assisted by Kijima (Kunimura Jun) and his men, attacking the fortress-like sanctum of Varrick and his henchmen. Kijima joined forces with Kate after encountering her in a scene of anagnorisis in which both come to understand that they have been betrayed by their respective “families.” The film ends as Kate dies, watched over by a grief-stricken Ani, who has chosen both to forgive her and not to follow in her ill-fated footsteps.
Unlike the two Nikita models mentioned here, Kate includes some coverage of Kate’s early training supervised by Varrick. Although Point of No Return, for example, shows Maggie being trained to fight and practicing her shooting skills, these scenes concern a young adult, not a young girl. In Kate the viewer observes her learning to fight (including being punched and knocked down) and being insulted by a man (presumably a target) whom she promptly shoots in anger. The exploitative nature of her relationship with Varrick exceeds even the manipulative stance adopted by Bob (Gabriel Byrne) in Point of No Return and by Bob (Tchéky Karyo) in La Femme Nikita. The relationship between Tony and Léon in Léon seems more paternal or brotherly, even if not free of manipulation, and Léon rather unwillingly begins a similar protective relationship with Mathilda. The Léon and Mathilda liaison has some murky implications, as Lucy Mazdon notes: “. . . the father/daughter relationship of Nikita and Bob is echoed in the burgeoning love between Léon and Mathida . . . which progresses from a child/parent relationship to a chaste and yet somewhat disconcerting passion” (Mazdon 112). The “disconcerting” element is not operative in the relationship between Kate and Ani, which begins rather like the Léon and Mathilda liaison, unwillingly on the part of the adult mentor, but which seems more like a sisterly relationship than a parent-child one. Additionally this relationship contains an important kernel of potential resentment which is absent from the Léon-Mathilda nexus, namely the fact of Kate’s assassination of Ani’s father. When Ani learns the truth, she comes very close to repeating Kate’s relationship with Varrick, but events and, apparently, her real emotional attachment to Kate negate this possibility. Varrick is killed by Kate, and Ani rejoins Kijima.
The bifurcated provenance of Kate, from the Nikita model and from D.O.A., lends to its storyline accents not found in a film like Point of No Return. Like D.O.A., Kate features nuclear material, used as a murder weapon, in its storyline. In both instances, the act of poisoning results in unintended and ironic consequences for the poisoners. In the case of Frank Bigelow, the poisoning occurred as part of an attempted coverup of a smuggling scheme which had resulted in a murder. During routine work as an accountant, Bigelow had notarized a bill of sale (for iridium, some of which was used to poison him) which might have proven the existence of a motive for the murder on the part of Halliday (William Ching). As Bigelow protests mournfully, “All I did was notarize a bill of sale”—thus, he is not punished for a moral failing (not even for his “escape” to San Francisco, which occurred after the notarizing), suffering instead simply for doing his job. Thus R. Barton Palmer observes that “Frank is not poisoned because of his excessive wanderlust and ennui, but because of an insignificant gesture he had performed unthinkingly (and safely) hundreds of times before” (Palmer 91). His poisoning ironically results in doom for Halliday and his associates, because Frank becomes an avenger of his own murder, uncovering the entire criminal conspiracy, which had involved not only Halliday but several accomplices. The act of poisoning Frank (and the prior act of killing Phillips, the man who had innocently contracted with Halliday for the stolen iridium) becomes in a sense part of a prophetic series of events: the “luminous poison” (iridium) will illuminate the true roles of the conspirators who had operated in darkness. As Mark Osteen observes in connection with Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946), a film he connects with D.O.A., “the bottled uranium becomes a metaphor for emotional secrecy and the failure of intimacy,” concerns also addressed in Bigelow’s relationship with Paula (Pamela Britton); and the release of the nuclear material (iridium) proves disastrous for Frank and for Paula, as is the case for the unfortunate Sebastian (Claude Rains) in the Hitchcock film: “Bottled-up secrets are both intoxicating and poisonous, and their revelation may be liberating or shattering” (Osteen, “The Big Secret: Film Noir and Nuclear Fear” 82).
Athough Kate is certainly not innocent or even ordinary like Frank, since she possesses expert skills which allow her to assassinate on command, her own poisoning also results in fateful consequences for her killer and many of his associates. Following the disastrous first hit of the film, she announces to her handler Varrick that she wants to retire, but he convinces her to take on a final job, targeting Kijima. Between her reluctant acceptance of the contract and going into action to fulfill it, she is poisoned with the nuclear material (Polonium 204) which will kill her. She begins to experience symptoms almost immediately, chiefly a slight cough. The cough recurs as she sights in the target, causing her to flinch and thus ruining her aim. If the poisoning had not occurred, her contract would have been completed, and she might even have retired, causing no trouble for her employers. But the poisoning sets in motion a chain of events which leads to the death of her handler and many yakuza associates, and ironically to the reaffirmation of Kajima as oyabun, precisely the outcome which the plotters wished to forestall.
In a narrative shift echoing Léon, Kate and Ani form a tentative friendship, although with less mentoring than the activity featured in the relationship in the Besson film. Ani appears to awaken a maternal or sibling instinct in the closed-off Kate….
After learning the truth about her condition, Kate begins her vengeance quest. She locates Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), daughter of the yakuza whom she had killed at the beginning of the film, and forcibly takes her in search of Kajima. Ani is traumatized (rather like Mathilda) from the hit, since she was so close to her father that blood spattered on her face, and she is also a very mouthy, irreverent, and intelligent teenager who is bilingual. Kate does not reveal her own condition, and she does not reveal anything about her line of work or about her own ability to navigate the Japanese language. Ani begins rather unwillingly to lead her to Renji (Asano Tadanobu), a yakuza at one remove from Kajima, but Renji sends several men to ambush Kate and to kill Ani. Kate intervenes to save Ani’s life. Renji wishes to replace Kajima as oyabun, and Kate will learn eventually that Renji had set her poisoning in motion.
In a narrative shift echoing Léon, Kate and Ani form a tentative friendship, although with less mentoring than the activity featured in the relationship in the Besson film. Ani appears to awaken a maternal or sibling instinct in the closed-off Kate, and Kate finally allies with Kajima to rescue Ani, after learning from Kajima that he had been betrayed by Renji, as Kate had been betrayed by Varrick. In fact Varrick had been betrayed, in a sense, by Renji, who went ahead with poisoning Kate despite Varrick’s apparent desire to wait until he could try to convince her to change her course about retirement.
In both sets of films influencing Kate, the assassin set (Nikita and Léon) and the D. O. A. set (including the 1988 remake with Dennis Quaid), the motif of the family forms an important background. This motif descends from “classical” film noir, according to Nina C. Leibman, who examines a number of noir films from the 1940s and 1950s with respect to their emphasis on the nuclear family. She observes that in film noir, “. . . the narrative is often centered around family issues, with the plots’ problematics motivated or resolved by and through the family unit” (Leibman 169). In some cases, as in the original D.O.A., the family is only potential, while in others, such as the D.O.A. remake (Morton and Jankel), the family (childless in this instance) is being broken by divorce, or is of a surrogate type, like the cynical mentoring arrangements in the Nikita films. In the mentoring instances, the Nikita model has a violent young adult, convicted of a capital crime, “pardoned” by the state after her death is faked. The pardon is contingent on her agreement to become trained as an assassin for a black ops unit. In practical terms, the “orphan” (because the parent is not notified of her true status) is “adopted” by her handler and by extension, by the state. In Nikita and its remake Point of No Return, as in Kate, the adoption conditioning begins to come apart (like the brainwashing in The Manchurian Candidate) when the assassin encounters a new “family” or attachment—in Kate’s case, a teenaged girl whom she can try to protect; in the Nikita cases, a romantic attachment which pulls apart the dehumanizing connection to the assassination bureau. No such relief, however temporary, is allowed for Frank Bigelow, who must search out his killers with little assistance, at least until the very end of his quest. The 1988 remake with Dennis Quaid, while stylistically and narratively inferior to the original, does provide some interesting departures from the model, as the about-to-be divorced English professor Dex Cornell (Quaid) must endure the murder of his wife while forcibly enlisting the aid of one of his students, Sydney (Meg Ryan) in looking for clues to the murders of himself and his wife, a liaison which becomes briefly romantic. Thus Cornell, though dying physically, comes alive emotionally, a point driven home in the screenplay: like Kate, he finds purpose, however briefly, in connecting emotionally to another person.
Notwithstanding the somewhat positive ending in Kate, the film presents a vertiginous, sleazy noir Tokyo within which the inevitability of Kate’s gruesome death plays out. The modern Japanese megalopolis inherits the post-World War II ambiance suited to noir events as detailed by Paul Arthur in connection with films such as D.O.A., in which “[t]he transience and anonymity associated with big cities” play a central role (Arthur 167). This role includes the “fast life” as illustrated in scenes such as the wild salesmen’s party in the hotel where Bigelow stays, the hectic street scenes (especially the famous shots of Bigelow running frantically from doctor to doctor), and the frenetic jazz scene in The Fisherman Club where Bigelow is poisoned. Robert G. Porfirio emphasizes the central importance of the jazz scene not only for the poisoning but because of the role of this club as “the major locus for a network of metaphoric associations, integral to D.O.A.’s structure, not the least of which is the association of jazz, sex and death” (Porfirio 179) (see also Osteen, Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream 160–61 and Osteen, “The Big Secret: Film Noir and Nuclear Fear”). Bigelow seems out of place in the club, because his “square” affect does not allow him to buy into the rather burlesqued hip sensibility of the other white participants in the scene, whose racial content is discussed by David Butler (Butler 69–71).
An additional aspect of Kate which ties it to D.O.A. is the time-clock narrative, which operates here to heighten suspense even though the outcome appears fixed. The suspense in these cases arises chiefly from viewer consideration of the possibilities for a character like Kate, especially whether or not she will succeed in her revenge, as well as a curiosity about how she will effect that revenge. This kind of suspense nearly reverses the time-clock narrative of 24, in which the viewer experiences little or no doubt as to the survival of main character Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). The 24 narrative does elicit a suspense reaction concerning the method of Jack’s escape from death as well as the fate of secondary characters (Surnow and Cochran).
Notwithstanding the somewhat positive ending in Kate, the film presents a vertiginous, sleazy noir Tokyo within which the inevitability of Kate’s gruesome death plays out.
Similar to the time-clock narrative of Kate is Vengeance (Johnnie To, 2009) (To). Here, the protagonist Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday), a retired hitman who has become an accomplished chef and wealthy restaurant owner, has limited time to avenge the murders of members of his family because a bullet in his brain is causing him to lose his memory. After an undetermined but probably short time, he will not even remember his family. He forms an alliance with a group of Hong Kong-based hitmen who happen to work for George Fung (Simon Yam), the man who had ordered the hit which resulted in the death of Costello’s family members (carried out by a different crew). After his new allies are all killed by a force assembled by Fung, Costello finally takes his revenge on Fung. The film ends as Costello apparently rejoins a group of displaced children who are cared for by a woman important to his dead allies. Given his memory loss, this scene may be a fantasy conjured up in his vanishing memories. Like Kate, however, he achieves his vengeance and finds some peace at the end of his life.
Another time-clock film with even more similarity to Kate is Edge of Darkness (Martin Campbell, 2010), in which tough Boston police officer Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) welcomes his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) to his home, only to watch her gunned down by an unknown assailant. Responding to a warning by his concerned colleague Whitehouse (Jay O. Sanders) about the “armed and dangerous” nature of the killer, Craven snaps, “What do you think I am?”. The traumatized Craven soon begins to search for clues to the identity of the killer but is eventually poisoned with a radioactive isotope (as Emma was), in his case mixed into some milk in his refrigerator. Aware of the short time allotted him, he steps up his search, becoming increasingly aggressive in ferreting out the conspirators. After a series of confrontations, he forces the radioactive solution down the throat of the man behind his troubles, Jack Bennett (Danny Huston, in a typecast role), director of Northmoor, a company engaged in secret weapons research for the government. Emma had been part of a group trying to expose Northmoor’s activities. Here the family content concerns a parent’s bereavement and not the orphan status applying to Nikita, Maggie, and Kate. The conspiracy is much broader, entailing global political issues but impinging nevertheless on the status of families unaware of the reasons for the deaths of their loved ones. Like Kate, Craven dies after achieving a modicum of peace or at least a sense of resignation.
Arthur, Paul. “Murder’s Tongue: Identity, Death, and the City in Film Noir.” Violence and American Cinema. Ed. J. David Slocum. New York: Routledge, 2001. 153–75.
Badham, John, dir. Point of No Return. Digital Videodisc. With Bridget Fonda, Gabriel Byrne, and Harvey Keitel. Warner Brothers-Art Linson, 1993.
Besson, Luc, dir. La Femme Nikita. 1990. Digital Videodisc. With Anne Parillaud, Tchéky Karyo, and Jean Reno. MGM-Samuel Goldwyn/Gaumont, 2003.
—, dir. Léon the Professional. 1994. Digital Blu-ray Videodisc. With Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, and Danny Aiello. Columbia-Gaumont/Les Films du Dauphin, 2009.
Burrough, Bryan. “The Kremlin’s Long Shadow.” Vanity Fair 49.4 (Apr 2007): 1–9.
Butler, David. Jazz Noir: Listening to Music from Phantom Lady to The Last Seduction. Westport: Praeger, 2002.
Campbell, Martin, dir. Edge of Darkness. Digital Blu-ray Videodisc. With Mel Gibson, Bolana Novakovic, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, and Jay O. Sanders. Warner Brothers, 2010.
Desser, David. “Beyond Hypothermia: Cool Women Killlers in Hong Kong Cinema.” Hong Kong Neo-Noir. Ed. Esther C. M. Yau and Tony Williams. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017. 118-39.
Dorfman, Richard. “D.O.A. and the Notion of Noir.” Movietone News Feb. 29, 1976: 11–16.
La Femme Nikita. Television series. CTV Television Network-Warner Brothers, 1997–2001.
Hathaway, Henry, dir. The House on 92nd Street. 1945. Digital Videodisc. With William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, and Signe Hasso. Louis de Rochemont-20th Century-Fox, 2005.
Hillis, Ken. “Film Noir and the American Dream: The Dark Side of Enlightenment.” Velvet Light Trap 55 (Spring 2005): 3–18.
Hitchcock, Alfred, dir. Notorious. 1946. Digital Blu-ray Videodisc. With Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains. Criterion, 2019.
Leibman, Nina C. “The Family Spree of Film Noir.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 16.4 (Winter 1989): 168–84.
Maté, Rudolph, dir. D. O. A. 1950. Digital Videodisc. With Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, William Ching, and Luther Adler. Cardinal Pictures-United Artists-St. Clair Vision, 2004.
Mazdon, Lucy. Encore Hollywood: Remaking French Cinema. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.
Morton, Rocky and Annabel Jankel, dirs. D. O. A. Digital Videodisc. With Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Daniel Stern, and Charlotte Rampling. Touchstone-Buena Vista, 1988.
Nicolas-Troyan, Cedric, dir. Kate. With Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, Miku Patricia Martineau, Asano Tadanobu, and Kunimura Jun. EightySeven North
Productons/Clubhouse Pictures/Netflix, 2021.
Nikita. Television series. Sesfonstein Productions-Warner Brothers, 2010–2013.
Osteen, Mark. “The Big Secret: Film Noir and Nuclear Fear.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 22.2 (Summer 1994): 79–90.
—. Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Porfirio, Robert G. “Dark Jazz: Music in the Film Noir .” Film Noir Reader 2. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 2003. 177–87.
Surnow, Joel and Robert Cochran, creators. 24. Television series, Digital Videodisc. With Kiefer Sutherland, et al. Imagine Entertainment-Fox Network, 2001–2010.
To, Johnnie, dir. Vengeance. Digital Videodisc. With Johnny Hallyday, Simon Yam, and Anthony Wong. IFC Films-Milkyway Image, 2009.
Tung, Charlene. “Embodying an Image: Gender, Race, and Sexuality in La Femme
Nikita .” Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 95–121.
Wager, Jans B. Dames in the Driver’s Seat: Rereading Film Noir. Austin: The U of Texas P, 2005.
Woo, John, dir. The Killer. 1989. Digital Videodisc. With Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, and Sally Yeh. John Woo, screenwriter. Medusa Communications and Marketing, 2002.
Zakrzewski, Alex, dir. “The Soul of Chess.” With Luke Kleintank, Heida Reed, Carter Redwood, Christiane Paul, Vanessa Vidotto, and Aaron Serotsky. FBI: International. Vol. 1. Wolf Entertainment-CBS-Universal, 2021.
See La Femme Nikita (1997) and Nikita in Works Cited list.
As in this fictional case, Polonium—210, not 204—was used to poison Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, a critic of Vladimir Putin, in London in 2006: “Back in Moscow, Sasha was known as the infamous K. G. B.-trained lieutenant colonel Alexander Litvinenko, who had publicly denounced Vladimir Putin’s government for all manner of murders and corruption” (Burrough 1). A recent episode of the new television series FBI: International bases its storyline on Polonium poisoning, specifically mentioning the Litvinenko incident (Zakrzewski 1).
Both films can be termed examples of “nuclear noir,” a term applied by Jan Wager as “a subcategory of noir” and including films such as Notorious and The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945) (Wager 64–65).
Richard Dorfman also notes the “irony” of the poisoning: “The implied irony is that if they had not killed him [Bigelow] he would never have become involved and the crime would have gone undetected” (Dorfman 15). For an interesting study of the role of light in this and other noir films, see Hillis.
See also Osteen, “The Big Secret: Film Noir and Nuclear Fear” 84–85, for comments tying Bigelow’s “secrecy” to the “state secrets” of atomic power.
David Desser comments on the “transformation of identity” for female assassins (but not for male ones) as well as the importance of romantic encounters for these women (including Nikita and Maggie) in which “bourgeois values and lifestyle become their fondest desires” (Desser 124–25). For comments on the female “tough” heroine, see Tung.
Ken Hall (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1986; MA, University of NC-Chapel Hill, 1978) is professor emeritus of Spanish at ETSU, where he had taught since 1999. His publications include Professionals in Western Film and Fiction (McFarland, 2019), John Woo: The Films (McFarland,  2012), John Woo’s The Killer (Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Stonewall Jackson and Religious Faith in Military Command (McFarland, 2005) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the Cinema (Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1989).