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From Hell.com

Shoot To Kill

by Alex Kirschenbaum Jan 23, 2022

The terrific survivalist buddy actioner Shoot To Kill (1988), a.k.a. Deadly Pursuit, stands tall as one of the great under-appreciated genre flicks of its day. This riveting, rollicking ride, starring Sidney Poitier, Tom Berenger, Kirstie Alley and a cadre of capable character actors, will get its time in the sun right now. Buckle up.

At the start of Shoot To Kill, 22-year veteran FBI agent Warren Stantin (Poitier) is brought in to investigate a San Francisco diamond merchant smuggling out his own diamonds in the middle of the night. Stantin quickly intuits that the jeweler has done so under duress, and soon the beleaguered gentleman informs him that his wife is being held hostage by a mad gunman and he had been instructed to supply his own jewels for ransom collateral. The family dog has already bitten the bullet (off-screen, mercifully), so the jeweler knows the gunman means business.

Director Roger Spottiswoode and writers Harv Zimmel, Michael Burton, and Daniel Petrie Jr. kick things off with some great character-building for both our hero and our villain. We discover throughout this early sequence that Warren is doggedly determined to help people, a strength that was initially played for weakness. Our villain exploited Warren’s implicit goodness to effectively make his getaway while receiving the diamonds he sought.

The film’s makers craft the sequence expertly. We learn one crucial point about the gunman: he’s ruthless. He leaves the hostage at the edge of a foggy pier, far out of range of the FBI sniper accompanying Warren, after having picked up the diamonds while using the hostage as a human shield. The sniper then escapes in a getaway boat. When Warren Stantin and the sniper rush to follow the victim, they discover the hostage, dead. She did not have to die, but our baddie killed her anyway. This beat, the opposite of a “Save the Cat” scenario, is a great, expedient way to turn us off from the villain. A weaker movie would have created a scenario where a gaffe from Warren compelled the baddie into killing the hostage. This way, the anonymous assailant is just a sadist. He could have fled, with the haul in hand, and left this defenseless, unimposing, pajama-clad, elderly hostage alive.

The cops are smart. After receiving a sheriff’s report in Bishop’s Fall, Washington they recognize the murderer’s MO at close range: large caliber single kill shot through the left eye. They track the killer to Bishop’s Falls, Spokane, mere miles away from the Canadian border. In the Great White North, our mystery monster intends to off-load the diamonds to the shady Fournier (Michael MacRae), a wealthy “fence” who will broker the stolen merchandise.

Upon arriving at Bishop’s Fall, Warren discovers that the best resource for navigating through the miles of forest is Bishop’s Fall Guide Services, the company of adventurous Sarah Rivell (Alley) and her partner, asocial thrill-seeking “mountain man” Jonathan Knox (Berenger). We are informed that Warren has tracked our baddie to the world’s premiere “high-mountain fly fishing” area. Yet again, this is a great, quick way to transitively infer that the two guides to the area, Jonathan and Sarah, are elite fly fishers and experts when it comes to knowing the wooded terrain.

The clever plotting continues, when we discover that Sarah has taken a group of five backpackers on a multi-day fishing hike. We know that one of them is the killer, but when we cut to the group, we see that all five could in fact by the killer: white males between 20-40, all mildly creepy. This is an old trick in building suspense, as Alfred Hitchcock once explained in the essential movie book Hitchcock/Truffaut (recapped and contextualized here from David Bordwell):

“Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!’ In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.”

Scribes Zimmel, Burton, and Petrie have learned this lesson well. We are treated to a whole 25 minutes of protracted suspense as we try to decipher which of these creeps is the killer. The knowledge that Sarah is leading a group that contains one mutinous murderer, liable to spring at any moment he sense trouble, thickens all the otherwise-trivial exchanges between these fly fishing enthusiasts with a palpable layer of subtly escalating tension. If you have yet to experience the thrills of Shoot To Kill, I’ll leave that reveal for you to discover. The casting here is top notch. Harvey (Andrew Robinson, a.k.a. Scorpio from Dirty Harry), Steve (The Movies That Made Me podcast guest Clancy Brown, a.k.a. the monstrous prison guard captain Byron Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption), Norman (Richard Masur, who had flexed his villainous muscles as an unspeakable monster in the telefilm Fallen Angel), Ralph (Frederick Coffin, who played an array of intimidating cops in several comedies and thrillers), and Benny (Kevin Scannell, who played an array of intimidating cops on TV) are all vaguely off-putting, sinister weirdos.

Though Jonathan appears hell-bent on pursuing the team alone, Warren convinces Jonathan to guide him into the mountains to rescue Sarah and the four innocent tourists from among her doomed fishing party. Warren’s colleague, Agent Minelli (Robert Lesser), stays behind to run point and coordinate with local authorities.

Lesser quietly had himself quite the action-packed 1988: in addition to solid supporting work in Shoot To Kill, he also portrayed the airplane passenger who recommended that John McClane make fists with his toes post-flight to calm down in the original Die Hard — and the heartless agent of the Orlando celebrity selected to be the new Santa in Ernest Saves Christmas, of course.

As Warren and Jonathan battle the elements (including a friendly moose, a less-than-friendly bear, some surprisingly delicious marmots, a terrifying gorge, intimidating high-altitude climbs, hypothermia and a storm front), each man begrudgingly realizes he needs the other to survive the journey.

The late great Poitier, who took his final curtain call earlier this month, had transitioned to directing in the 1970s. At first starring or co-starring in his projects, the Academy Award-winning performer stopped acting entirely for over a decade. Shoot To Kill marked his return in front of the camera for the first time in 11 years. Poitier was 60 at the time cameras rolled for this flick (but, like Tom Cruise decades later, convincingly plays a character probably 15 years younger), yet he remains an absolutely convincing action hero in all his scenes here.

The Pacific Northwest-set adventure picture’s artful, well-choreographed cinematography arrives courtesy of the great Michael Chapman, also the man behind the lens on Scorsese classics like Raging Bull (1980) Taxi Driver (1976), plus the immortal horror comedy The Lost Boys (1987).

Poitier’s regal star presence looms large over the proceedings. He radiates intelligence and intensity in equal measure, playing a brilliant detective grappling with a wilderness beyond his control, and a killer who seems to constantly be one step ahead of Warren’s (ahem) deadly pursuit. Berenger, Alley, and the actor who plays our killer (again, if you haven’t seen the flick, we’re not going to spoil that intel here) all submit impressive turns too. The dynamics between Poitier and Berenger and Alley and the murderous diamond thief are first-rate.

Spottiswoode’s sure-handed action filmmaking still feels slick and modern, giving all the sequences plenty of energy without sacrificing the viewer’s sense of the geography within a given scene space. As today’s clunky Hollywood pictures prove, that is no small feat. Spottiswoode would go on to apply his kinetic action sensibilities to the second Pierce Brosnan James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

Shoot To Kill remains a thrill. Pay your respects to Poitier, one of the best to ever do it, by diving into one of his late-career highlights.