Devil Or Charlie's Angel?

To call Point of No Return a remake of the 1991 French pop fantasy "La Femme Nikita" isn't adequate; carbon copy is more like it. The screenwriters, Robert Getchell and Alexandra Seros, have simply taken the Luc Besson movie and, with a few minor alterations, duplicated it in an American setting. The change of locale to Washington, D.C., Venice, Calif., and New Orleans only re-emphasizes the fact that this sleek comic-strip mix of violence and romance could take place anywhere except in the real world.

A twisted modern fairy tale, "La Femme Nikita" was a Cinderella story about a female assassin. A madly eclectic hodgepodge of genres, the flashy but shallow Besson film may have seemed fresh because it kept shifting its pop-mythic gears. What starts as a dark, ultraviolent cousin of "A Clockwork Orange" turns into a delirious episode of "Charlie's Angels," with elements of James Bond and "Pygmalion" tossed in. When we first see the heroine, now called Maggie (Bridget Fonda), she's a vicious, drug-addicted punkette, as glamorous as a drowned rat. Arrested for a murder committed in a holdup, this wild animal is sentenced to death, but her execution turns out to be a ruse. When she wakes from her injection she is a captive of a shadowy, high-tech government agency that plans to turn her into a poised, sophisticated hit woman. Under the dual tutelage of Gabriel Byrne and Anne Bancroft, this grunge Galatea is trained in martial arts, computers and fine dining, and her snarl replaced with a smile. Six months later, transformed into a pert sexpot, she's taken out into society and handed her first assignment-a hit job in a fashionable restaurant.

When she passes the test, she's sent to Venice to wait for her next lethal gig. But the civilizing process has been too successful: the killing machine discovers her heart, and loses it to an amiable photographer (Dermot Mulroney) who hasn't a clue that he's shacked up with a professional assassin. Torn between love and evil duty, what's a poor hit woman to do?

Director John Badham ("WarGames," "Stakeout") knows there's no point in trying to make any of this plausible. You just have to keep a straight face, pour on the style and keep the bodies flying. Since Maggie is essentially a kitten-with-a-whip fantasy figure, she comes unencumbered by friends, a family, a past. All we know about her is that she's inherited her taste for torchy Nina Simone songs from her mother (a nice musical touch). It's up to Fonda to make us swallow this killer, and she largely succeeds. Neither as sinewy nor as feral as Anne Parillaud was in the original, Fonda wisely doesn't try to overdo the savagery. Thin-lipped, small-voiced and slightly framed, she's hardly an icon of physical menace in this era of iron-pumping maidens, but by staying within herself (to use a sportscasters' favorite cliche) she creates an appealingly enigmatic figure, unpredictable and poignant. More than anything, Fonda gives this glossy, reasonably entertaining rerun an American raison d'etre: underneath her chic cocktail dress and semiautomatic fashion accessories, you recognize, and embrace, the tomboy girl next door.