When we think of French movies we tend to think of artsy, thought-provoking films about the internal struggles of the characters.

But every now and then a so-called genre film comes along carrying subtitles, like the Hong Kong thriller "The Killer" a few weeks ago.While "La Femme Nikita" is a little more thoughtful than "The Killer," it nonetheless joins the ranks of spy films that have been around since the '30s - though this is more like those that began in the '60s.

Remember Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in "The Ipcress File" and its sequels - or any number of other spy films that followed, where a reluctant civilian was recruited to perform a series of dangerous missions, despite his protestations? "La Femme Nikita," at least in part, follows that formula.

It begins with a scene that could come from any number of American action-thrillers that come down the pike these days, as a bunch of hop-heads break into a pharmacy to steal drugs, and a bloody shootout with police ensues. Our heroine, the angry, violent, foul-mouthed Nikita, is in a drug-induced stupor and doesn't participate until the gunfire is over. Then she dreamily shoots a cop.

Naturally, she is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But she commits suicide in her prison cell - or so the world thinks. Actually, she's been recruited to be a spy.

Undisciplined as she is, however, it takes some doing - and several years - to get her in shape to serve her country. Eventually, she's on the streets again, building a life for herself that is normal in every respect but one: Every now and then she gets a phone call that gives her an assignment to kill someone.

The result is an odd bit of cinematic cross-breeding - James Bond meets "Pygmalion."

Nikita's government work starts out easily enough, but eventually the jobs escalate until she is challenged beyond her capacity to conform. How she deals with this makes for an interesting, unexpected denouement.

None of this would be nearly as interesting if it weren't for the startling central performance by Anne Parillaud as Nikita and the stylish direction of Luc Besson, who also scripted the film. The combination is irresistible - and could teach American filmmakers a thing or two about punching up a movie that might otherwise be classified as simply the same old thing.

And, for French film buffs, it's also nice to see Jeanne Moreau again in a brief bit.

"La Femme Nikita" is rated R for considerable violence and profanity, and implied sex.