Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Very Dangerous Adversary

Some links before I get started today. Parsnip posted about her birthday and about epiphany. Krisztina had a recipe for brownies. Maria wrote about bad habits of certain well known writers. And Ivy featured one of her dogs.

Now then, today I have a film review.

"I've never seen a grizzly just turn and run like that." ~ Jonathan Knox
"Everybody else up here acts like they've never seen a black man before. Why should the bear be different?" ~ Warren Stantin

"Tell me something. What else would you miss, besides telephones?" ~ Knox
"Everything!" Stantin

The acclaimed actor, director, and activist Sidney Poitier had been off the big screen for a decade when director Roger Spottiswoode cast him in the lead for the 1988 thriller Shoot To Kill. It was a film in which he played an FBI agent hunting for a ruthless killer, and reluctantly partnered with a man very much unlike him, played by Tom Berenger. The film has been critically acclaimed and a box office success, and remains a tense, taut thriller set in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a chase film, but also a character study of two strong protagonists working together despite initial friction, with an antagonist that still stands as one of the most malevolent villains in movie history- all the more so because the antagonist is so very human.

The story opens with a late night break in at a high end jeweller’s shop in Seattle, but all is not as it seems. The police discover that the owner of the shop is the one who’s broken in, and he breaks down and confesses to an FBI agent, Warren Stantin (Poitier) that a criminal has broken into his house, and holds his wife and maid hostage unless he brings the diamonds from his store. Stantin quickly discovers that the criminal (Clancy Brown) is a clever, dangerous sociopath who has no qualms about killing, and the attempt to rescue the hostages and make the exchange and arrest goes wrong. The criminal escapes into the night, while Stantin is left with two bodies and lots of unanswered questions.

The killer, who we don’t see at first, finds himself cornered during his escape along the backroads, certain that the police are after him- though he mistakes a roadblock as something meant for him. He comes across a rendezvous site for a fishing party soon to meet up, with one of the party already present, and seizes the opportunity. Stantin is alerted to the scene, where the body of a man bearing the signature tell-tales of his killer’s modus operandi has been found, and learns about the fishing party, being led by Sarah Renell (Kirstie Alley) deep into the mountains. He realizes his killer has infiltrated the party by passing himself off as the man he killed, and must be looking for a way to get through to the border. Stantin also discovers that Sarah’s partner and lover Jonathan Knox (Berenger) is the only person in the area that can lead him into those mountains to intercept the killer... but Knox believes Stantin will just slow him down and is determined to go after the party himself.

The story comes from Harv Zimmel, who collaborated on the screenplay with Daniel Petrie and Michael Burton. It’s a tense man versus nature tale that also weaves man versus man into it. It plays as a crime thriller, certainly, but also a survival tale, and the story weaves through these elements as it goes along. The landscape itself certainly becomes a character as the story goes along, as both the protagonists and the villain must deal with the challenges of the terrain. And the writers work moments of levity and humour into the story, a good way to contrast against the tension of the overall narrative.

Spottiswoode has been known for a variety of genres during his career as a director; some of his other credits include Tomorrow Never Dies, Air America, and Shake Hands With The Devil. He has a stylish feel as a director and knows how to handle action but also the interaction of actors, and that certainly plays out here. Much of the filming was done in British Columbia, doubling for both the BC and Washington sides of the border. Many Canadians will recognize elements of the end of the film, when our protagonists are back in civilization; Spottiswoode filmed key sequences late in the film in Vancouver and on the passenger ferry travelling to the island. Spottiswoode also has a skill for conveying the grandeur and the danger of the wilds, and the challenges they present. He features sequences of mountaineering that will unsettle anyone with a fear of heights, and one of the best- and most tense- sequences of the film involves a perilous attempt by the protagonists to reach a stranded cable car above a wild gorge, an attempt that goes dreadfully wrong. The sequence leaves the audience feeling overwrought, to say the least.

It was a wise thing of Spottiswoode to have kept the audience guessing about the killer. At first we don’t see him at all- he’s hidden behind a hostage, or under a blanket, or in a dark car or boat. We don’t see his face, and Spottiswoode even gives us his point of view while driving, still dangling that identity before us. He casts several other actors, all of them character actors known to have played villains, for the other members of the fishing party, including Richard Masur, Andrew Robinson, and Frederick Coffin. 

In the end though, it’s Clancy Brown, known for many a character role, but perhaps best for The Shawshank Redemption. I wondered about revealing that... but it’s been twenty six years since the film came out, and it’s hard to comment on his performance without speaking about what the actor does with the role. We know him as Steve, but his real name remains a question. Brown gives the character a malicious, sociopathic streak; he knows the difference between right and wrong, but just doesn’t care. He’s greedy, but very smart, driven and motivated. He’ll do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, and doesn’t mind at all if that involves taking lives. It’s a ruthless, vicious character, all the more dangerous when you factor in the fact that he’s not unhinged. Brown makes him a formidable adversary, and such a good villainous role.

Kirstie Alley gives Sarah an interesting take in her performance. She’s not the damsel in distress, though she spends much of the film as a hostage. She’s calm under pressure, defiant when she needs to be, and brings an inner strength to the situation she finds herself in. We learn quickly that Sarah is a good match for Jonathan; neither of them want much to do with the hectic world outside the land they love. They’re suited for each other and for a life of guiding people on backpacking hikes into the mountains. Though the two don’t really interact until the end of the film, we believe Sarah and Knox as a couple, because she’s his driving, motivating factor throughout.

Berenger plays Knox in just the right way. He’s a man who in an earlier time would be a complete recluse, not fit for modern life. He makes a living guiding people roughing it for a couple of weeks, but he’s happiest leaving civilization behind. Knox is a man who understands how to live off the land, is in his element in the wild, and is driven by his love for the woman he shares his life with. He’s also frustrated and angry, partly by the federal agent from the city he feels is slowing him down, but also by the situation that has come into his life and is threatening to tear that life apart. Berenger incorporates all of this into his performance, and his performance is just as strong as his fellow protagonist. How Knox and Stantin relate to each other is a relationship that evolves from mutual dislike to gradually getting to know each other, and that becomes the bedrock of the film.

Poitier is ideally cast as Stantin. He brings the gravity and strength to the performance that you would expect of the actor. He comes across as entirely believable and forceful as a fed, at the point in his career where he’s a leader, but not so far ahead in the ranks that he’s doomed to be the office director never to actually work a case again. Stantin is a man of justice confronting a man of chaos and darkness, and Poitier gives him a fierce determination that carries him into the wilderness... where a man who’s accustomed to city life is very much out of his element. Some of the humour of the film comes from that- Stantin’s reaction to an icy stream or a moose, for instance, or the way he drives off a charging bear, and even Knox describing what Stantin looks like after they’ve survived taking shelter in a hastily dug snow cave during a blizzard. Through it all, though, Poitier plays the agent with great strength and fortitude, and it’s a performance that stands up so well for an actor who’s become well known for great performances.

Shoot To Kill is many things. It is a buddy film, a chase caper, a wilderness adventure, and a contrast between the forces of good in its protagonists and the presence of evil in the form of a memorable villain. I’ve enjoyed the film every time I’ve seen it. 


  1. This must not have been as popular as Eddy Murphy and Nick Nolte's 48 Hours as I never heard of it. Seems like a popular storyline for the 80's though. Danny Glover and Mel Gibson also had a running of movie fame with the Lethal Weapon series.

  2. Another one I haven't seen....

  3. I have to go check out Parsnip's epiphany!

  4. Great review of this movie. I saw it years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I once saw Sidney Poitier on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington DC filming a scene of a movie about the Civil Rights. My mother had always been a huge fan and I was able to send her photos of him, not very good ones back in those days but she was thrilled.

  5. I've never seen this one. Great review!

  6. I've never heard of this movie either. William's review plus Berenger and Poitier make me want to see it!

  7. @Diane: that did seem to be a trend back in that period.

    @Norma: you should!

    @Eve: it's good.

    @Denise: I've liked Mr. Poitier in everything I've ever seen him in.

    @Auden: thank you!

    @Lynn: a pleasure to point it out.

  8. I've not seen this one, for some reason. I may have to check it out!

  9. I'll admit it: I've never even heard of this one. But, looks good! I'll have to check it out.

  10. Nice review. I have to admit I haven't seen this movie.

  11. I can't remember seeing this movie, but I'll be looking for it. Your review is again so very thorough and interesting. I've read a lot of movie reviews and reviewers but none compare to the quality you provide!

  12. I have seen it at least five times over the years. I love Poitier in his role. You have captured the essence of the movie to the Nth degree. Or maybe I used Nth degree wrong, but I love all your film reviews.


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