Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Shoot to Kill

(R, Touchstone Pictures, 110 mins., theatrical release date: Feb. 12, 1988)

A pip of an opening sequence heralds the decade-long comeback of the Civil Rights era's leading man in Roger Spottiswoode's Shoot to Kill. On a sleepy San Franciscan night, a jewelry heist bursts onto the scene, the perp revealed as the store's owner, Mr. Berger, undisguised and still in his evening dress. In walks Sidney Poitier as Special Agent Warren Stantin, a G-Man of 22 years experience, to suss out the reason for Mr. Berger's jittery self-theft: someone is pointing a gun at his wife, having previously shot their dog, and is demanding two pounds of stones or else. To prove he's not bluffing, the faceless criminal lets the maid out of the Berger's mansion in plain view of Agent Stantin and the SWAT team, and pops her just as ruthlessly.

Stantin submits to the gunman's demands whilst taking a sniper for back-up, though once they've driven out to the pier, Stantin is left with another dead body, that of Mrs. Berger, and a fugitive who has successfully eluded his tail. This instills a determination in both parties as one flees north towards Washington and the Canadian border, the other struggling to identify the cleverly-concealed psycho on the slimmest of descriptions. It will get worse once Stantin receives a report of a fisherman's death in Bishop Falls, murdered in the same manner as Mrs. Berger and all of his clothes stolen as the thrill-killer blends himself in with the slain sportsman's wilderness expedition.

This looks like a job for the man we once called Mr. Tibbs, but is indeed Sidney Poitier in his first starring role since 1977's A Piece of the Action, his third partnership with Bill Cosby and his fifth time behind the camera, to boot. Those lighthearted capers, which also included Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again, showed Poitier attempting to break away from the steely prestige he was associated with, an iconoclastic populism Poitier carried on when he limited himself to directing in the ten year hiatus from acting. But his frustratingly spotty track record, which peaked with Stir Crazy and would go on to include such stiffs as Hanky Panky and Ghost Dad, created a longing for Poitier's greatest gift to cinema: his very own unmistakable presence.

Being 1988, Sidney Poitier came back to a Touchstone-distributed action programmer where he shared top billing with rising star Tom Berenger, whose post-Platoon glories are as inconsistent as Poitier's directing credentials, but acquits himself well under the circumstances as much as the returning Poitier. Berenger is wild man Jonathan Knox, a guide-for-hire whose girlfriend Sarah Rennell (Kirstie Alley) just so happens to be leading the hiking quintet which includes the clandestine killer. Agent Stantin, having never roughed it once in his metropolitan life, demands Knox's assistance to prevent a vigilante rap, the solitary tracker knowing full well Stantin is going to slow him down.

Sarah's out there, though, with four happy-go-lucky tourists and one impostor, though in a shrewd display of casting, the expedition is a rogues' gallery of venerable character actors. Who can it be? Is he Andrew Robinson, who cuts the widest swath in unsettling villainy by his association with Dirty Harry and Hellraiser? Or Richard Masur, who was in Spottiswoode's Under Fire as the spokesman for El Presidente and also once perverted Dana Hill's innocence in the 1981 TV movie Fallen Angel? I thought I recognized the late Frederick Coffin, a.k.a. "Holden McGuire," as Ike, the orange-haired yokel ("Disco's stupid!") from the eternally skeevy Mother's Day! And just where do I even start with Clancy Brown! Poor Kevin Scannell (Turner & Hooch) is the odd man out, but that can throw one off, just as well.

I will refrain from spoilers (thanks for nothing, Touchstone Home Video!) except for one minor reveal: It isn't Richard Masur. His recently-divorced Norman is the only supporting role written with deliberate red herring traits (he shares an elevated cart over a gorge with Kirstie Alley and queries about her boyfriend's potential for jealousy), but Masur is too endearingly anxious to come off as a threat, even if Fallen Angel, which was directed by the same man who gave me the Moon Goddess of Summer Girl, proved otherwise.

When the villain inevitably outs himself, he sends the rest of the men plummeting to their rocky doom, the better for Alley's Sarah to guide him to the border without incident. At the same time, Stantin and Knox have their own reluctant game of "follow the leader" to navigate, and it's not without danger, either. Take the aforementioned conveyor cart, which the killer has sabotaged by jamming a large trunk in the clutch. Knox has to climb the rope from one side of the gorge to the other, which is scary enough given the distance below him, only to make it halfway there before the trunk comes loose and the cart slides down and knocks him off the rope. Hurtled violently against the cliffs, Knox has to rely on Stantin using all the strength in his aging body to hoist him back up to safety.

Spottiswoode and cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also plays a minor role as lawyer for the diamonds broker whom the villain keeps in touch with) create for that first 40-odd minutes leading up to the killer's reveal an efficient genre pastiche with pure currents of dry humor (e.g.: a fried marmot dinner between Knox and Stantin), gut-twisting set pieces and Poitier jumping back in the saddle with both his authoritative charisma and his overlooked comic timing intact. Once Sarah becomes hostage, though, the script becomes a protracted grind in which those once consistent pleasures are reduced to fleeting embers.

Shoot to Kill's confidence goes so downhill that the movie doesn't even conclude in those treacherous natural environs, with a literal cop-out on land which belabors the inevitable scene of déjà vu involving Poitier aiming his gun at the madman, once again using a human shield. The slickness finally becomes helplessly transparent and the script is revealed for the shambles it is. And then you start questioning the killer, whose frightening intelligence at the start is bogged down by formula dunderheadedness which makes you wonder if he has any real accomplices ("my men" he refers to at the start), why he's keeping Sarah alive given his hair-trigger temper and just what happened to his lethally calm aim when the bullets start firing in all directions.

Suffice to say that whichever of the line-up (Scorpio, Ike, the Kurgan, the Other Guy) is our baddie, it ends up being a waste of one man's evident talent. Or all of them, including Masur. And perhaps even spunky, endangered Kirstie Alley.

Poitier and Berenger, though, are given enough action and rapport so that Shoot to Kill becomes entirely watchable thanks to them. The manhunt eventually becomes a chore to sit through, but Knox cracking wise about Stantin's newfound ruggedness as well as the immortal grizzly encounter show glimmers of life which kept me interested despite the script, which originates with story writer Harv Zimmel (a real-life outdoorsman) but also includes touch-ups from Michael Burton (Flight of the Navigator) and, most pertinently, formula action specialist Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop, Toy Soldiers). There's a single comic-relief allusion to Stantin's racial identity, and Knox has but one zinger about "mountain boys" as he tries to warm up Stantin's body during a blizzard. Mostly, it's a battle of persistence that is highly entertaining up until the domesticated final stretch.

Shoot to Kill winds up with its barrel jammed once there is no more Pacific Northwest to take in. But for the excitement our then-60-year-old Sidney Poitier inspires, it's fairly irresistible. Do note that the film's international title was changed and that, in this particular trailer, there is a line which doesn't appear in the movie, just to deter you from suspecting a cross between The Defiant Ones and Survival Quest.

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