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Shoot to Kill (1988)

by on 2013/06/09

Shoot to Kill (1988)

“Ah, to hell with you then. I’m going to Canada.”

* * *

Another former Bond director – Roger Spottiswoode of Tomorrow Never Dies – another generic title – Shoot to Kill – and another slightly disappointing Canadian shot-and-set thriller with western elements.

I saw this movie when it first came out in theatres. I loved it at the old Eaton Centre shoebox-sized cineplexes, then raved about it to my parents, and we loved it all over again on VHS video. Now 25 years along, I was eager to revisit it, but ultimately less impressed this time around.

In theory it still sounds promising; in practice it’s bumpy and jarring. The stentorian Sidney Poitier (Sneakers) stars as FBI agent Warren Stantin, after a ruthless outlaw, kidnapper, killer, and robber.

(Spoiler warning: Though the story and production make considerable efforts to disguise the outlaw’s identity, sadly, many film buffs will probably guess “whodunit” right away when they see the opening credits.)

Stantin tracks his quarry from San Francisco to Washington state, desperate to stop him before an escape into Canada. In order to navigate the treacherous wilderness of woods, mountains, and snow, each takes on a guide: the killer deceives Sarah Renell (Kirstie Alley of The Wrath of Khan) while Stantin enlists her hotheaded survivalist partner, Jonathan Knox (Tom Berenger of Assassins’ Ball).

Broken quite roughly into three distinct pieces, the first sets up the relationship between the agent and his prey. The second is a fish-out-of-water scenario where the streetwise lawman must contend with the wild frontier. The third inverts the second, so the rustic is dropped into a city. For an apt comparison given the time in which it was made, think “Crocodile” Dundee II forced into the middle of “Crocodile” Dundee.

Unfortunately, the Dundee flicks were more similar in tone, and Shoot to Kill is decidedly uneven. The ruthless gritty opening is betrayed by its Odd Couple middle. Knox is not as harsh as we’re led to believe, nor as harsh as he should be. He’s an angry loner, racing to save a kidnapped love from a killer, yet tolerates incessant jokes and delays from Stantin.

For his part, Stantin begins much stronger, then weakens considerably. The twenty year vet of the FBI spends too much time mugging and whining. Where’s the wily, workaholic professional from early on? He’s replaced with a gasping, goofy, thoughtless buffoon. I realize we need clearly to perceive the inversions at the heart of this story, but to change the tones so drastically is derailing. We’re meant to forgive him just because he’s Sidney Poitier, rather than a well-defined character.

Further, the “worst of the Eighties” score is painfully distracting. Don’t even get me started on the inappropriateness of synthetic beats and saxophone solos in the woodlands.

Would the experience have been better if these aspects were all fixed? Most certainly, although the result would still be nothing more than a standard thriller with big-name talent attached. You’re better off to decide if you’d rather see City Slickers or Lethal Weapon, because Shoot to Kill does neither nor both as well.

It lines up the headshot, drops the gun, discharges into its own foot, falls over and lands on the target accidentally.

* * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

110 minutes

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