Picking big-screen baddies is a much trickier game than it used to be. These days, if you want your villain to be a foreign crime lord, you have to decide where he comes from very carefully, lest you find yourself denounced by politically correct finger-pointers. It was so much simpler back in the '80s then you could just grab someone who could do a thick Slavic accent, cast him as a KGB agent, and you were good to go. (Of course, the end of the Cold War made many of those villains as obsolete as a computer lab full of Commodore 64s, but still.) That kind of Reagan-era attitude toward Russians gets a healthy workout in Little Nikita (1988), a dated-but-still-tense thriller that puts an original spin on the spy genre. River Phoenix stars as Jeff Grant, a bright 17-year-old kid from Southern California who loves his truck and his girlfriend and wants to go to the Air Force Academy. His life seems pretty uncomplicated until the day he meets Roy (Sidney Poitier), an FBI agent on a mission to catch "Scuba" (Richard Lynch), a rogue Soviet spy who's hunting down KGB "sleepers" inactive agents in deep cover inside the United States. Jeff is astonished and angry to learn from Roy that his "normal" suburban parents, Richard and Elizabeth (played by Richard Jenkins and Caroline Kava), are the next two targets; they've been living false lives for the past 20 years, hoping they'd never be called upon to do their duty. But everything comes to a head when Richard and Elizabeth are activated by the mysterious Karpov (Richard Bradford), with the movie culminating in a stand-off near the California-Mexico border crossing. Little Nikita is a tight, well-paced movie that (thankfully) avoids the worst of the easy, KGB-are-evil stereotypes, but ultimately it succeeds on the strength of its cast. Poitier is excellent as Roy, balancing fierceness and joviality just delicately enough to make both seem genuine. And Phoenix gives a fine performance as Jeff; even in scenes with questionable dialogue chief among them the one in which Jeff calls his girlfriend (Lucy Deakins) and says he wants to run away his talent is evident (which makes it all the more poignant to watch the movie now, so many years after his untimely death). Little Nikita is by no means a flawless film (the climax is a bit languid for a thriller), but it's an engaging, well-acted slice of the '80s that still deserves to find an audience. Columbia's Little Nikita DVD is satisfactory; the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer (a full-screen version is also available) may have been remastered, but it's still showing its age in spots; the graininess is particularly noticeable during the opening credits sequence. The English Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is clear and strong, and although there's no shortage of subtitle options (English, French, Spanish, and Korean), the review copy of the DVD did have a technical glitch that popped distorted subtitle text on screen whether they were selected or not. (Hopefully it's an isolated problem.) Trailers, keep-case.