Where does your loyalty lie?
Director Richard Benjamin's (My Favorite Year) Cold War-era espionage adventure/family melodrama stars River Phoenix as high school senior Jeff "Nikita" Grant whose dreams of attending the Air Force Academy lead FBI agent Roy Parmenter (Sidney Poitier)—tasked with performing an admissions background check on the boy—to the conclusion that Grant's parents are deep cover Soviet spies. The KGB is about to call Richard and Elizabeth Grant back into action in order to use them as bait to capture a renegade agent, codenamed Scuba, whose loyalties are unclear. Jeff and Roy must team together to save Jeff's parents and stop Scuba who, naturally, is responsible for the death of Roy's old partner.
Little Nikita arrives on DVD courtesy of Columbia TriStar's desire to cash in on Sidney Poitier's Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Oscars. There's little doubt of this based on the fact that among the trailers presented as extras on the disc is To Sir, With Love (1966), a classic with a performance far more representative of Poitier's power and authority on screen than Little Nikita's. Much as I'd like to say Poitier's presence, as well as Phoenix's, are enough to make Little Nikita worth owning, they just aren't. Both actors turn in performances that are benignly competent in their best moments, and downright hammy and awkward in their worst. The film itself is silly and predictable, light fare that needs to be as charming and fun as, say, Back to the Future, to hide its plot holes and cookie-cutter characters, but comes nowhere near that high threshold. It doesn't help that its 1988 Cold War plot dates it far more than your average 14-year-old film.
The best moments of the movie come from character actors. Though his part is small, Richard Lynch (Invasion U.S.A.) plays the creepy and sinister Scuba as only Richard Lynch, the master thespian of creepy and sinister, could. The best performance of the film, however, belongs to Richard Jenkins (The Man Who Wasn't There) as Richard Grant. (I think, by the way, the Screen Actors Guild may have a by-law stating no less that seven percent of all films produced in Hollywood each year must employ Richard Jenkins—the man's been a player in everything!) His performance is understated throughout, but also true—he just exudes a regular-guy sort of dadness—and in the end, he gets to stretch out a bit emotionally, pulling it off far more convincingly than either of the film's stars.
Little Nikita comes to DVD in a startlingly average transfer. Colors are natural to slightly muted, blacks are slightly less than solid, minor film grain is prevalent, and slight damage to the source print, although sporadic, is intrusive enough you can't miss it. The Dolby Surround track, though clean, is the sonic equivalent of watching grass grow.
Looking for a good Sidney Poitier flick? Go out and buy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or In The Heat Of The Night or To Sir, With Love or Lilies Of The Field or A Raisin In The Sun. I'd give Little Nikita a pass unless you want to see a great actor sleepwalk through a mediocre film.
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Scales of Justice
• Trailers: Little Nikita, Race the Sun, To Sir, With Love
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