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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Little Nikita': Thriller in the Hitchcock Vein

March 18, 1988|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"Little Nikita" (citywide), a refreshingly original thriller that is also a wrenchingly poignant family drama, announces its ambitious scope with an opening composed of seemingly disconnected events that provoke questions immediately.

What has a parade down a classic small-town American Main Street have to do an IRS man who's fatally stabbed in an office at the Caliente race track? Or a pretty water-skier deliberately run down by a boat in San Diego Bay? Or another man found dead in the dolphin tank at Sea World?

Writers John Hill and Bo Goldman and director Richard Benjamin provide the shocking answer early on, for they're following Hitchcock's wise dictum that says the best suspense lies in letting the audience in on everything while keeping the characters in the dark as to the danger in store for them. (However, the meaning of the film's curious title doesn't become clear until you're well into the film.)

Sidney Poitier plays a veteran FBI agent determined to make the most of an unexpected chance to nail the man who killed his partner 20 years before and that this inadvertently involves River Phoenix's All-American suburban San Diego youth, who's all set to apply for the Air Force Academy.

How good it is to have Poitier back in front of the camera. His quiet, humorous intelligence gives impact to everything he says and does, and in this instance it gives him an added menace as he zeroes in on the unsuspecting Phoenix.

"Little Nikita" confirms all the promise Phoenix showed in "Stand By Me." If anything, this film is even more emotionally challenging for Phoenix as his Jeff Grant finds himself in one of the most confounding predicaments imaginable. The hair-raising adventure in "Little Nikita" is firmly anchored with a loving depiction of Jeff and his family.

He has the kind of solid relationship with his mother (Caroline Kava) and father (Richard Jenkins) that would strike envy in the hearts of most parents today. Elizabeth and Richard Grant are a still-young, attractive, hard-working couple who run a large and successful nursery. Clearly, the reason their home life takes on the idyllic aspects of an Andy Hardy movie or a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover is that Richard and Elizabeth are unusually loving parents.

Yet by the time "Little Nikita" has reached its edge-of-the-seat finish it will have raised crucial questions about loyalties and allegiances in which ironies compound ironies. With a potent assist from cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the film proceeds subtly from a light-hearted to an increasingly somber tone. As a result, we're left with an unsettling awareness of how hard it is to be certain of how well we know others, especially those we care for deeply.

Richard Bradford and Richard Lynch, those reliable heavies, are wonderfully sinister. Loretta Devine brings much-needed humor to the film as the counselor at Jeff's school who allows herself a discreet fling with Poitier's agent.

When a film has a premise as ingenious and far-out as "Little Nikita" has, it usually must unfold with air-tight logic or risk falling completely flat. It's a tribute to the film's substance and sheer persuasiveness that it sustains, without any real damage, a couple of dents in its credibility.

For Richard Benjamin "Little Nikita" marks a return to the sophistication of "My Favorite Year" and "Racing With the Moon" after the disaster of "City Heat" and the extremely broad humor of "Money Pit."

"Little Nikita" (rated PG for some moments that may be too intense or confusing for the very young) is sure to be one of the most unusual mainstream movies of the year.

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