Picks and Pans Review: Little Nikita

UPDATED 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

Starting with a misleading title that suggests we're in for a look at Khrushchev's life as a toddler, this is a movie with problems. Big ones. The actual plot, about a teenage boy (River Phoenix) in a small California town who discovers that his mom and dad are deep-cover KGB agents, is a classic case of promise unfulfilled. The opportunity to mine the drama of a boy torn by loyalties to parents and country is bypassed by director Richard (The Money Pit) Benjamin in favor of the spy thriller hokum in the John Hill-Bo Goldman screenplay. What a waste, especially of the film's formidable talents: Phoenix, 17, that rare teen idol with ability (see Stand by Me and The Mosquito Coast) and superstar Sidney Poitier, 64, making a welcome return to film acting this year (here and in Shoot to Kill). Poitier plays the FBI agent who tells Phoenix the truth about his parents and tries to win his trust. He invests the role with subtlety and power. Phoenix is effective too at revealing the boy's mounting conflicts. But the two performances are all buildup. Just when the audience justifiably expects a confrontation of agent, boy and parents, Benjamin cuts to the chase. A renegade Soviet agent right out of central casting takes over the story. On come the shootings, stabbings, decapitations. Anything to avoid an issue. Even the ending is done without dialogue, just teary close-ups as the sap rises in Marvin Hamlisch's swelling score. It's the perfect capper for a movie that has long since turned to mush. (PG-13)

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