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Shoot to Kill
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by Jack Sommersby

"Takes Aim and Nails Its Target"
4 stars

While not the box-office smash hoped for, it did reasonably well financially and garnered some good notices.

After a ten-year hiatus from the silver screen it's a distinct pleasure seeing the great Sidney Poitier right back up there where he belongs in the fine crime thriller Shoot to Kill. Quite the shame this stalwart of The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? took himself out of commission to direct such uneven efforts as Stir Crazy and Hanky Panky, both of which starred Gene Wilder (with Richard Pryor co-starring in the former) and were acceptable when they stuck to comedy but erred when straying off-path with action-filled third acts; and since he displayed exactly zero visual panache one can't say the interlude was worth it. Though his role in Shoot to Kill is far from multi-layered, Poitier brings his typical solidity and appealing personality to that of San Francisco FBI special agent Warren Stantin who finds himself facing a very formidable opponent. In the movie's knockout opening passages we see an utterly terrified elderly man driving his Mercedes like a bat of hell out of hell in the middle of the night to his downtown jewelry store where he hurriedly empties out his collection of diamonds; as it happens, he forgets to turn off the burglar alarm, and the police show up and soon thereafter the FBI when it becomes clear the man's actions aren't voluntary - his wife is being held hostage at their mansion by an inimical intruder demanding the diamonds and no police involvement. (This isn't all that far-fetched, for there have been stories in the newspaper like this. What better way than to have the business owner doing the actual robbery?) Stantin takes charge and tries to rescue the wife, but the fiendishly clever villain, whose face we don't see and whose voice is mechanically disguised, manages to outwit everyone, shooting his hostage dead and getting away with the loot. But luck isn't entirely on his side. Before he can drive across the Canadian border a nearby automobile accident is blocking the road with police presence: he turns off the at the nearest dirt road which leads to a cave where a fisherman is starting out; he kills the man (shooting him in the right eye as he did the wife as is his signature), dons his cold-weather hiking gear and ingratiates himself into a chartered hiking party consisting of four inexperienced men and their female hiking guide, Sarah (Kirstie Alley). Stantin, the ultimate babe-in-the-woods, is determined to go after them, but complicating matters is his martinet of a guide, Jonathan Knox (Tom Berenger), who just happens to be Sarah's boyfriend. Knox, an isolationist living in a remote log cabin, doesn't want Stanton along - he thinks this big-city gumshoe will slow him down with Sarah's life on the line - but Stantin makes clear Knox either goes with him or he'll be detained. This of course leads to a series of exciting, sometimes humorous, scenes within a fish-out-of-water template.

As you've no doubt surmised, Shoot to Kill is far from original, and, yes, it's formulaic to the nth degree. Naturally Stantin and Knox will knock heads along the way but eventually have a grudging respect for one another, Stantin will save Knox's life not once but twice (the second time an unexpectedly hilarious but involving a grizzly bear), and Stantin will grow to appreciate nature...actually, no, he doesn't - when he"s back in the city after losing the killer he's positively orgiastic over a simple hot shower and wants his soiled clothing burned. The writers have attempted to add variety to the proceedings by keeping us guessing which one of the hikers is the culprit, with all of them played by actors who've played bad guys before, though I correctly guessed which one for this actor has never played a good guy before. (And how his character manages to sabotage a pulley passenger-basket across a ravine without Sarah noticing is beyond me.) The movie's Vancouver section isn't up to par with the previous sections, but the director, Roger Spottiswoode, orchestrates things admirably. Spottiswoode, who helmed the outstanding The Best of Times two years prior (it's still the best football film ever made) and the superb photojournalism drama Under Fire three years before that, has a genuine eye for uncanny detail, and working in 2.35:1 widescreen for the first time with the ace cinematographer Michael Chapman ably assisting, Shoot to Kill is a handsome-looking production even when the plot wobbles and the plausibility factor is stretched. Though Berenger isn't exactly inspired, he stays in character and is believable throughout, with Alley pluckingly headstrong and winning. But this is Portier's show. In fact, the movie would be just about unimaginable. As he demonstrated in the Oscar-winning "In the Heat of the Night" where he played another cop, Poitier, six-foot-four and stolidly intimidating, never comes across as even remotely granitic; he's always open to the camera while at the same time conveying he's definitely not a man to mess with. Poitier's sense of decency helps fuse with Stanton's innate decency without going didactic on us the way a less secure actor would. Perhaps it's his voice that's part of his widespread appeal in that it's much softer than one would expect, so when Stantin succeeds in getting that jewelry-store owner to risk his wife's life by giving up the truth, that he knows Stantin will do everything to keep her safe, we can buy it. Oh, it's highly unlikely an FBI agent would acquiescent to a kidnapper's demand that he be let go or he'll kill his hostage (after all, if he does kill her than he no longer has any leverage), but Shoot to Kill doesn't portend to be anything particularly intelligent, so we - somewhat grudgingly - are willing to go along just so the movie can "deliver the goods." A flashier actor by the likes of, say, Denzel Washington would be too snazzy, too polished for Stantin. Poitier gets across a lifetime of hard-won experience which correlates with Stantin's disappointment when, after all these years on the job, he still makes mistakes and finds it hard to easily forgive himself of them. Poitier is one of the reasons they make screen heroes in the first place - he's an absolute standard bearer.

Old-fashioned entertainment in the best traditional sense.

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originally posted: 01/21/20 06:52:07
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User Comments

7/21/20 morris campbell good movie have not seen it in a while 4 stars
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  12-Feb-1988 (R)



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