Sidney Poitier took an eleven-year break from starring in films, from 1977 to 1988. During his on-screen sabbatical, Poitier tried his hand at a few directing jobs, churning out some incredibly atypical efforts: the decent Stir Crazy, the bad Hanky Panky, and the forgotten Fast Forward. Finally in ’88, he decided it was time to step back in front of the camera, and he chose Roger Spottiswoode’s crime-drama adventure, Shoot to Kill. It was a curious choice for Poitier; one of the greatest of a bygone generation, a trailblazer for African-American actors, was set to play an FBI agent chasing a diamond thief across the U.S.-Canadian border with the reluctant help of a mountain man. Prestige would take a back seat here. And despite the familiarity, it works and works well.
Shoot to Kill oozes genre tropes from its blood-soaked pores, something that was seemingly unfamiliar to Sidney Poitier in 1988. It reshapes the buddy-cop formula by placing this reluctant pair against the backdrop of the unforgiving wilderness. There are well-known elements in the DNA of Spottiswoode’s thriller, but it should not be dismissed as some poor attempt to ape off the success of 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon. Shoot to Kill has a mean streak in it and Poitier’s fish-out-of-water routine is anything but stale. The action set pieces are exhilarating, tense from start to finish, and Spottiswoode and his team elevate this genre entry beyond simple fodder.
Poitier is Warren Stantin, a Fed who inadvertently stumbles into a kidnapping plot involving a jewelry store owner. The owner’s wife is being held hostage at their home, and he must break into his own store, swipe some diamonds, and take them back to the thief. Stantin and the police surround the home and they find themselves up against a crafty, cold blooded thief who shoots the maid just to send a message. These opening scenes set the stage for the film; the message the killer sends not only reaches Stantin, it lets the audience know this villain operates without the burden or morality.
The thief eventually escapes and heads for the Canadian border. He sneaks his way into a group of weekend warriors hiking across the mountains on a fishing trip. This group of men – led by Sarah (Kirstie Alley) – is one of the more ingenious narrative tricks employed in Shoot to Kill. We know the killer is among these wannabe adventurers, but they have no idea he’s among them. And we don’t know which one he is. Spottiswoode masterfully casts this collection of hikers with a mixture of anonymous faces and a few actors (Richard Masur, Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio Killer Andrew Robinson) who we recognize and immediately suspect because of the baggage they bring with them from earlier roles. The story carefully indicts each of these hikers with backstories, sideways glances, and close calls, keeping us off balance until the killer reveals himself late in the second act.
And so Stantin must track down the killer before he can make it to Canada. He forces a hardened mountaineer, Jonathan Knox (Tom Berenger, terrific), to help him track the killer. Knox has his own agenda – Sarah is his girlfriend – and he doesn’t need some tenderfoot city boy slowing him down; police training be damned. Stanton will have none of it. He and Knox butt heads as they traverse terrain, Stantin struggles to manage his horse, and he generally hems and haws about the weather and the pace with which Knox is moving. Eventually, of course, the two learn to work together.
The story then bounces back and forth between the fishing expedition, eventually upended by the killer who takes Sarah hostage and forces her to lead him to the border, and Stantin and Knox’s pursuit. The central action scene takes place when Stantin and Knox have to get across a ravine via a suspended carriage, one that’s been rigged by the killer (Poitier’s reaction to Knox’s plan to shimmy across the ravine is classic: “Ohhhh shiiit.”). Knox, dangling from the rope, is sent plummeting to the ravine floor only to be jerked from certain death by the safety rope around his waist. It’s preposterous, painful, and thrilling.
Poitier and Berenger have surprising chemistry here, elevating the traditional genre cliches. The film works like a checklist of what to take cover in crime thrillers, but as I said earlier, it has a real mean streak. The stakes are raised thanks to the touch of nihilistic violence permeating the adventure. The killer wiping out the fishing crew is especially bleak. But, at the same time, Shoot to Kill is wonderful entertainment, scattered with some sharp humor and genuine thrills. Spottiswoode’s work is balanced, and it’s a shame the film was lost in the late 80s action buddy explosion.
Regardless of its shallow footprint on the pop culture landscape, Shoot to Kill seemed to inspire Poitier to take on more genre roles, none of which were as well made as this (Sneakers is the outlier). Remember The Jackal? Little Nikita? You don’t, and you shouldn’t. You should, however, seek out Shoot to Kill.