One of the most frustrating experiences one is likely to have in a movie theater is to watch a good premise be ruined. Of all the films that get made in Hollywood (or anywhere else, for that matter), relatively few are based on an idea that's worth mentioning. Most are rehashings of films past - sometimes well done, more often not. So when someone comes up with an idea that isn't totally familiar, you get your expectations up. If they're disappointed, you feel worse about the film than if it had been another rehash of the same old junk.
Little Nikita is a good case in point. The theme of the film is rich in possibilities: a typical American kid finds out that his parents are actually Soviet agents. A good writer could take this premise in a lot of interesting directions. We could see the film through the eyes of the kid, concentrating on his world coming down around him. It could be a mystery in which you aren't sure till the last minute whether or not the parents really are the agents. You could present the film from the point of view of the authorities tracking the enemy agents. You could even work from the point of view of the parents. But the most critical point is that you have to have a point of view, and that is precisely what Little Nikita lacks. The film never decides whose story is being told here, so it rapidly and repeatedly shifts gears. The result is that it never settles into any rhythm, and there is no consistent tone. We never find out whose story this is.
If lack of focus were Little Nikita's only problem, it might have been a flawed, but interesting, film. Unfortunately, its problems are legion. Richard Benjamin, who actually made a couple of good films early in his directing career, is utterly incompetent here. There is no suspense, no tension, no consistency even of style. He utterly botches the film's climax, which doesn't make much sense anyway. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs shoots what Benjamin asked him to well, but often the choice of what to shoot was badly mistaken.
Also, beyond problems in viewpoint, the script is a mess. The dialog is either poor or pointless. The plot makes little or no sense. The characters are dully constructed of cardboard. Several writers, including Bo Goldman, one of the most respected screenwriters in Hollywood, worked on this script. All I can guess is that they each threw some parts of the script out, and the producers mistakenly got hold of all the rejected material and pasted it together into the final form. As presented on the screen, the script is unbelievably amateurish and flimsy.
The acting does little to help. Sidney Poitier showed why he had been a major star in Shoot To Kill. Here, he shows why he retired. He flounders in the rotten part of an FBI agent trying to capture a renegade Soviet agent. One moment he's the dedicated cop, the next he's playful and lighthearted. He can't seem to decide whether he's doing In the Heat of the Night or Uptown Saturday Night. He plays each scene as if he had never seen any other scene in the script, including those that were chronologically earlier. Poitier is lucky that Shoot To Kill came out before Little Nikita, as the earlier success will likely cause people to forget this fiasco.
River Phoenix has nothing worthwhile to contribute to the part of the boy. Of course, the script gives him nothing to work with, and Phoenix has been very good in better parts, so his flounderings can probably be blamed mostly on script and direction. Richard Bradford plays a Soviet agent as if he were giving examples of overused spy cliches. Richard Lynch, as the renegade, adds yet another indistinguishable villain part to his credits. No real motivation is given for his character, so he can probably be forgiven for repeated what he's done often before. None of the other cast members does anything worthy of mention.
Little Nikita could have been so much more than it is. The realities of Hollywood probably would have prevented it from being anything other than an action/suspense movie, but it could have been a good one. (Just imagine what Alfred Hitchcock would have done with it.) Instead, Little Nikita is a waste of a couple of talented actors and an excellent idea. It is utterly forgettable.
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