Little Nikita

littlenikitaWhat if you woke up one morning and found out your parents were Soviet spies?

No, this isn’t the premise of one of those cautionary 1950s public-service documentaries, narrated by Jack Webb. It’s the plot mainspring for a new film, Little Nikita, in which the red menace rears its head in a sleepy suburb of San Diego.

Seventeen-year-old Jeff (River Phoenix, recently seen in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon) lives an utterly normal existence: He’s an only child, and his parents own a small horticultural establishment. So he’s considerably nonplused when a strange government man (Sidney Poitier) pops up and begins asking bizarre questions. Questions about Jeff’s parents.

Poitier is an FBI man who’s discovered that Jeff’s parents are “sleepers,” KGB agents who set up shop in America and live normally for years until called into action. Jeff, real name Nikita, is torn between his loyalty to his parents and his desire to know the truth about them.

This is a workable premise, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with it. There are sideplots galore, including a nonsensical story about a renegade Soviet agent named Scuba who is killing the other KGB spies. It’s absurd, except that it serves to make the parents somewhat sympathetic.

And that’s where the movie really cheats, because it quickly becomes clear that the parents have had a change of heart, really do like the United States after all, and have no intention of smuggling out atomic secrets. This means we can get to a happy ending without separating the family. Well. Isn’t that convenient?

The script is credited to four writers, including Oscar-winner Bo Goldman, and they’ve hammered dutifully away, trying to make it all fit. That is probably why the film seems to be going in a half-dozen or so directions, and is marked by ludicrous dead ends such as the invention of an absolutely irrelevant love interest for Poitier.

Richard Benjamin’s directorial promise continues to wane, although his last couple of projects have had serious script problems. But, like The Money Pit (his most recent film), Little Nikita is about as well­-directed as it could be, considering. At least Benjamin gets professional work from Phoenix and Poitier.

Little Nikita was actually filmed before Poitier’s “comeback” movie, Shoot To Kill, but was understandably delayed. With Shoot To Kill nestled among the top five money­makers for the past few weeks, Poitier is probably happy about how that one came out.

First published in The Herald, March 28, 1988

Richard Jenkins and Caroline Kava play River Phoenix’s parents, and Richard Bradford a Soviet spy. Lucy Deakins, from The Boy Who Could Fly, also turns up. Poitier had been off the screen for a decade, so his return really was something to note – too bad it went down this way.

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