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'Little Nikita' (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 18, 1988

There's an issue addressed in "Little Nikita," the new espionage thriller starring Sidney Poitier, but it has nothing to do with the film's ostensible subject. The movie is about a teen-age boy (River Phoenix) living in San Diego who discovers that his parents (Richard Jenkins and Caroline Kava) are Russian spies. But who cares about that? The important question here is: Where would River Phoenix be without mousse?

Is River Phoenix a star? Perhaps not.

But his hair is.

"Little Nikita" would be nothing without River Phoenix's hair. It's the most engaging, the most watchable thing in the film. It has body. It has character. It even has drama. In other words, it has everything that's missing from the rest of the picture.

Everything in the film feels arbitrary and unmotivated, and time after time, scenes that should have payoffs don't, or there is action without the necessary set-up that would allow us to make sense out of it. The director is Richard Benjamin, and he is so inept that he can't even stage a car chase. And that, you'd guess, is pretty much the one talent needed these days just to get your guild card.

The difficulties reveal more than simply the absence of a style or visual flair. They indicate a lack of any grasp of the essentials of the director's art. Benjamin's camera reveals nothing. When he moves it, it's usually for no particular reason and to no real effect. Both the action and the dialogue scenes are without pace. And there's little compensation in his work with the actors.

Poitier, looking hale and relaxed, does a breezy star turn as an FBI man trying to track down a renegade double agent code-named Scuba (Richard Lynch) -- perhaps too breezy considering that Scuba murdered his partner and for 20 years has been the ruling obsession in his life.

In some of the lighter scenes with Poitier, Phoenix shows that he may have some instincts for light comedy, and even the film's weightier moments don't really seem outside his range. But he still seems unformed as an actor, and mostly what he does here is coast along on attitude.

And mousse. Or is it gel? Star-making gel.

Add to this the fact that "Little Nikita" is Benjamin's fifth film and you should be convinced, once and for all, that we are not living in a meritocracy.

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