Review – An MCU Backstory Worth Waiting For (“Black Widow”)

Just when you thought this is just another “female spy story” like Red SparrowColumbiana, Salt, La Femme Nikita, and Atomic Blonde, okay, yeah, you’d be right. BUT! This has the MCU stamp of approval, has a huge fan base, and has been delayed three times in being released.

You know her, you love her. She’s the MCU’s hottest and original lethal female Avenger, Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), played to perfection by Scarlett Johansson. We last saw her sacrificing her life so that Hawkeye could acquire the Soul Stone in Avengers: Endgame. Sad emoji. This movie, however, is set just after Captain America: Civil War, when Natasha was on the run; a wanted fugitive because of those unjust Sokovia Accords, enforced by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt). After a brief flashback into her troubled childhood, we pick up the story with Natasha skedaddling back to Budapest, thanks to her contact & arms dealer, Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenie).

It’s there, she meets up with her long-lost sister, fellow Black Widow recruit Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) who, thanks to a special mist antidote, has just snapped Yelena out of her mind-control haze given to her at the infamous Red Room training facility. The same facility that took her and Natasha as children and conditioned them to be lethal killers, but now it’s run by the ruthless General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who’s mind-controlling Black Widow women for his own nefarious ways to control the world! Natasha and Yelena decide to take down the unfindable Red Room and kill Dreykov, but they’re gonna need help first.

Plan A: spring their father from a Russian prison. Dear ol’ dad, Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) also happens to be Russia’s own superhero (just like Capt. America) called Red Guardian, who gives the movie its comic relief. Plan B: find their lost mother, brilliant scientist Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a past Black Widow student herself. Once their old ‘family’ is assembled, the race is on to take down the Red Room, Dreykov, and Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), a deadly assassin who’s part cyborg and can mimic any opponent it faces! But since this is an action film, getting the job done ain’t gonna be no walk in the park.

There’s multiple fights, explosions, car chases, escapes, and more fights, all created by screenwriter Eric Pearson, who knows about MCU action films since he’s written TV’s Agent Carter, co-written Thor: Ragnarok, and did multiple rewrites for many other MCU films. This movie delivers on all the criteria of an MCU blockbuster: family, friends, humor, tons of action, but this one also deals with Natasha’s personal life & inner demons more so than before. Yes, there are a bunch of plot holes, huge gaps in logic & physics, and our all heroes endure unimaginable and unbelievable physical abuse that would kill any other normal human being, but you have to expect that in a comic book movie, right?

What’s surprising is director Cate Shortland, a newcomer to the MCU and has only three other films under her cinematic belt, none of them being large-scale action films. Cate shows a deft hand in showing off her talents for a big-budget, high-energy, kick-ass superhero film as well as her simple camera work with the quiet times when less is more. She only struggles with the hand-to-hand fight choreography, which has way too much shaky-cam and loses the focus on who’s fighting whom. While the fights are Atomic Blonde caliber, the camera needs to back off more.

All in all, this is Johannson’s movie and she shares it beautifully with Pugh like they were IRL sisters. Their chemistry is undeniable, lovable, and real. Pugh is poised to be the next Black Widow for the MCU, and she’s a terrific fit. Harbour, with his floating accent, is perfect as the wise-cracking pompous superhero and loving father. Weisz delivers a steadfast performance and Winstone is sufficiently creepy and mean. And for all you fans of the Disney Plus series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, stick around for a mid-credits scene that ties it all in.  

**Now showing in theaters or streaming on Disney + for $35 (Premiere Price) 

La Femme Nikita (1990)

Four years before he struck gold with his explosive crime drama about a sociopathic assassin (Leon: The Professional), writer/director Luc Besson made a low-budget thriller about a female assassin. He also rewrote this movie years later into Point of No Return, an Americanized version directed by John Badham.

It’s late one French night and a bunch of addled-brained teens break into a pharmacy to steal drugs, and in the process, end up killing a bunch of cops. The teens all die, save for one strung-out girl named Nikita (Anne Parillaud). But instead of sentencing her to death, she’s sent to a secret government facility to begin training because of her ruthless tendencies. Her handler, Bob (Tchéky Karyo), gives her a choice: either learn to be a contract killer or receive her death sentence as planned. Yeah. . .tough choice. Although she’s ratty-haired, scrawny, and barely talks, she gives it her best shot and, after three years, she’s blossoms into a beautiful (and lethal) young lady.

Now that she’s earned her freedom from “The Centre”, she’s got her own apartment, a new life, a new name (“Marie”), and a boyfriend named Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). However, Marco doesn’t know that sweet, fun-loving Marie is really a deadly gun-toting assassin when she gets special phone calls. He thinks she works late nights at the hospital and is just embarrassed about her childhood. Hoo-boy! After a few ‘assignments’, Nikita (Marie) is working herself up the assassin ladder to better contracts, all the while falling in love with Marco.

For their engagement gift, Bob gives them a first-class vacation trip to Venice, but it’s all a ruse: Nikita is told to carry out an assignment while in her hotel bathroom and Marco is right outside the door! Yeah, no pressure, no pressure at all! With a super-important assignment coming up AND Marco getting suspicious, Nikita is having a tough time focusing on her next job: stealing government documents in a heavy-guarded embassy. To say that the job almost gets botched is an understatement. People get killed, her cover is almost blown, Marco leaves her, and a trigger-happy “cleaner” (Jean Reno) goes quite bonkers.

The ending, which is NOT what you’d expect, Besson paints a somber picture, but one that remains true to the overall flavor of the picture. Parillaud as Nikita/Marie is simply marvelous as the irrational, frightened, unsure girl who grows into the steadfast and calculating femme fatale. Karyo as the stone-faced and emotionless Bob demonstrates an inner complexity within the man. This foreign import is SO much better than the sanitized, mainstream American version done three years later. La Femme Nikita was also a TV series that ran in the mid-90’s.

In this movie, you can see the beginnings of what would be one helluva career in movie-making for Besson. He directed the outrageous (The Fifth Element, Lucy), written great screenplays (Taken, The Transporter), and made epic-fails (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Valerian/Thousand Planets), but he still keeps ongoing. BTW: *It’s subtitled in French, but you can switch over to an English dubbed version on the DVD.

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