Sidney Poitier, 10 years absent from the screen, is now back with a vengeance.
His latest film, 'Little Nikita,' directed by Richard Benjamin, follows close on the heels of 'Shoot to Kill'. In both, Poitier plays an aging FBI agent with a strong personal motive to track down a ruthless killer.
Just as he does in 'Shoot to Kill,' Poitier totally dominates 'Little Nikita.' Unfortunatly, his latest picture has few of the thrills and tension of the earlier film.
In 'Little Nikita,' Poitier, as G-man Roy Parmenter, must break the news to a 17-year-old boy that his parents are Soviet spies, and in danger of becoming the next in a series of victims of a KBG agent intent on blackmailing the Russians. Jeff Grant -- whose Russian name he discovers later is Nikita -- is played exuberantly by River Phoenix, who brings all the innocence, anger and vulnerability necessary to the role of the boy torn between loyalty to his family and his country.
Also credible as Grant's parents -- 'sleeper agents' who are dispatched as spies to the United States but never called upon actively - are Richard Jenkins and Caroline Kava. Kava's tearful scene with her KGB boss is heart-rending and authentic.
But Benjamin -- who made such as splash as a director with the delightful and poignant, 'My Favorite Year' in 1982, seems less sure of himself with this spy genre. 'Little Nikita' is strongest when it focuses on the emotional impact a young boy experiences learning a painful truth about his family, and weakest when it's spinning a tale of supposed violence and international intrigue. The villain is without depth at all -- Richard Lynch, playing the evil 'Scuba' has no speaking part, in fact -- and so his determined violence seems implausible. Likewise, the Russian agent sent to stop the maniac and put an end to his murderous blackmailing, played by Richard Bradford, seems forever torn between being sensitive, albeit cynical, and amoral. It's an indecision that threatens to turn a serious drama into ridiculous comedy more than once.
The climax of this spy thriller, when an exchange of the boy and renegade Soviet spy is made, is almost totally unbelievable. Yet, like the rest of the film, Poitier seems to save the scene with the powerful emotions he displays. He is nothing less than a joy to watch -- no matter how bad the film.
Benjamin, whose comedic skills have always been impressive both in front of and behind the camera, may have done better to twist this anemic spy thriller into a black comedy. He might have had more fun, and the audience as well.