Little Nikita (1988)

Director: Richard Benjamin
Starring: Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Richard Bradford, Richard Lynch
Music: Marvin Hamlisch

Little Nikita is one of the last of the Cold War thrillers (or at least made while Russia was still the bad guy). It is really two films in one. The first concerns a teenage boy, Jeffrey Grant (River Phoenix), who finds out his parents are actually Russian ‘sleeper’ agents. The other story is about an F.B.I Operative, Roy Parmenter (Sidney Poitier), whose partner was killed twenty years ago by a rogue Russian agent code named SCUBA (Richard Lynch). Naturally these two story threads become intertwined.

The film opens in San Diego and a military parade is passing through the streets. It is part of a recruitment drive, aimed at attracting young men to enlist in the Marines or Air Force. One of the boys watching is Jeffery Grant, and he applies to join the Air Force.

SCUBA, it seems is not happy with his current employers, the Russians. He expresses his grievances by killing their convert ‘sleeper’ agents in the United States. He starts with a ‘sleeper’ who now works for the I.R.S. Naturally enough, the Soviets are not impressed with SCUBA, and at the Russian Embassy in Mexico, they assign Constantin (Richard Bradford – who you may remember from The Man In A Suitcase television series) to track down him down and kill him.

Meanwhile at F.B.I. headquarters Parmenter is given a stack of Air Force applicants to screen. When he comes to Jeffrey’s files, he notices a few odd things. According to the F.B.I. database, Jeffery’s parents, Richard & Elizabeth Grant were born in 1830’s and died in 1891. His parents have assumed false identities. He immediately arranges an interview for Jeffrey.

Jeffrey is excited once he is called to the Air Force Academy for an interview. He thinks he is in. Instead, Parmenter Interviews him to see how much he actually knows about his parents. The answer is nothing.

It’s only a few days later and Parmenter has moved in across the road from the Grants, and is ingratiating himself upon the family. Jeffrey is confused. What has all this got to do with his Air Force application?

When Parmenter and Jeffrey are alone, Parmenter drops the bombshell. ’Hey kid, your parents are Russian ‘sleeper’ agents!’ Jeffrey doesn’t take the news well. After all, he is a hormonal teenage boy. He throws a few tantrums around the house, and at one stage even contemplates leaving town with his girlfriend. In the end he comes to his senses.

While Jeffrey has been going through his domestic crisis, SCUBA has been making short work of all the other ‘sleeper’ agents until all that is left are Jeffrey’s parents.

Constantin knows that they will be SCUBA’s next target, and arranges to meet Richard and Elizabeth at the ballet. Considering the topic of the movie, it will come as no surprise that the Ballet is Sleeping Beauty and is being performed by a Russian troupe.

In what should have been a great cinematic moment, while his parents are out, Jeffrey searches the house for evidence that his parents are indeed Russian spies. Juxtaposed with this is the ballet and Constantin’s orders to Jeffrey’s parents. The parents are reluctant to co-operate. After all it has bee twenty years since they were planted. But Constantin insists that they meet SCUBA. In the ballet as Sleeping Beauty is awoken by a kiss from Prince Charming, simultaneously Jeffrey, rummaged through the nursery comes across his parents Russian passports. And to his surprise he also finds a passport with his own details. The ‘sleeper’ has awoken! As I mentioned, this should have been a great cinematic moment, but director Richard Benjamin handles it with sledgehammer subtlety.

Little Nikita was a great disappointment to me. I am a big fan of Sidney Poitier and this film isn’t his grandest moment. And even the other actors and actresses have been in better things (except for Richard Lynch, who was always in crap movies, playing psychopaths – this is a step up for him).

Most films are time capsules of the era they were made in. The good ones transcend this by entertaining us with characters we care about, and a story that we can get involved in. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen in Little Nikita and this film now seems very dated and unconvincing.

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