Little Nikita April 26, 2016
Little Nikita is an espionage thriller for the TV-Movie-of-the-Week crowd, so thoroughly undercooked and so dependent on Red Scare 101 tropes that it’s a wonder that we still manage to find diversion amidst its unremarkable formula. We can conclude that it most likely exists for no other reason than to serve as a vehicle for the legendary Sidney Poitier and the then-upcoming River Phoenix, who perform with such cogent resolve that it makes the film virtually impossible to dislike.
In Little Nikita, Poitier portrays Roy Parmenter, an FBI agent preoccupied with Phoenix’s Jeff Grant, a young Air Force Academy hopeful. Energetic and feeling trapped in his suburban life, Jeff, seventeen, wants nothing more than to graduate and call flying his living. But Parmenter couldn’t care less about the teen’s hopes and dreams: he’s more infatuated by the boy’s parents (Richard Jenkins and Caroline Kava), whose identities prove to be contradictory after undergoing a routine background check. A few days of snooping later and Parmenter finds that the Grants are hardly who they say they are — they are actually sleeper agents from the Soviet Union, deep undercover and apparently finished with the lives they once lived.
Jeff is in the dark when it comes to his true identity; in his mind, he’s no different than any of the other young men on his block. And so Parmenter, who follows him around like a pesky gnat, is a pest who has a weird way of checking up with Air Force applicants. But the agent is less concerned with the dangers the “Grants” could possibly inflict on the U.S. and more with the danger that could be inflicted upon them; within the last few months, KGB agents are mysteriously being picked off by an anonymous force. They, despite throwing towels into their respective espionage bins, could become victims if they aren’t careful. And so begins a deadly chase, Jeff creating conflict as he disregards peril in favor of passionate identity seeking.
We’ve seen films like Little Nikita many times previously, its clichés (from the constantly smoking, emotionless-but-brutal Russian villains to the determined, acutely patriotic hero) abundant and its innovations next to nothing. Its stabs at hard-hitting drama (namely the familial troubles that arise from Jeff’s questioning of his selfhood) are after school special at best, and its attempts to veritably depict Cold War conflicts are shammy. The plot grows more tiresomely derisory as it goes along.
And yet, Little Nikita is besettingly watchable, in no doubt because Poitier and Phoenix are leading men able to make a wearisome film inimitably appealing, Poitier a lead of unbreakable doggedness, Phoenix a successor to James Dean whose edgy appeal only grows more abiding as time drags on. So maybe the film’s dumbed-down politics and inept thrills are enough to turn most off — but as long as actors of its caliber are leading the way, there are worse ways to spend ninety-plus minutes. C+