FBI agent Warren Stantin (Sidney Poitier) has failed to capture a deranged diamond thief who has violently murdered several people in his path to escape. He has managed to make his way from San Francisco to Washington and is planning to cross the border into Canada. With authorities alerted to him in the area, this killer decides to masquerade as an innocent fisherman in a hiking party. Unbeknownst to the group and hiking guide Sarah Renell (Kirstie Alley), he’s hoping she’ll unwittingly help him across the border.
Complications arise, his identity is in jeopardy, so he kills all the others in the group, takes Sarah hostage and by gunpoint forces her to lead him into Canada through the mountainous terrain. Sarah’s boyfriend Jonathan Knox (Tom Berenger), who is an expert at survival in the wilderness, plans to save his gal and go after them, but big city FBI man Stantin insists on coming along on this perilous hike.
It’s the FBI man and the mountain man butting heads, backpacking through the dangerous wilderness and both determined to catch this killer and save the girl.
At the time, Shoot To Kill was a long awaited return to film for Poitier. He had spent the time directing several films (Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky), but hadn’t starred in a film since the 1977 crime comedy A Piece of Action with Bill Cosby.
It was a successful return. Shoot To Kill is an entertaining thriller with good performances by Poitier and Berenger. They make a fun duo, there’s some effectively tense scenes, some beautiful locations they hike through and a seriously scary, unhinged villain they’re in pursuit of.
Shoot To Kill would actually make a fine double feature with The River Wild. Both have good performances by some heavyweight actors, dazzling wilderness locations, well done action and a suspenseful story. Both films are very similar in those ways.
The film is a very straight forward cat and mouse extended chase. In the mountains Berenger’s the specialist and knows how to track the killer and Sarah, while Poitier huffs and puffs to keep up with him. The older city slicker has to contend with mountainous climbs, bear encounters, frostbite and waking up face to face with a moose. He’s a little shaken and certainly out of his element, but refuses to let Mother Nature deter him from catching this killer.
There are some nice suspenseful sequences. Berenger dangling over a river on a cable, Poitier struggling to pull Berenger up a sheer cliff face. I’m always surprised that Poitier was sixty-one when filming Shoot To Kill, since he looks remarkably good and fit. He’s meant to be the older, seasoned FBI man, but he convincingly looks like he could hold his own in the woods and running after suspects.
As nature becomes this hurdle for them to overcome, the weather doesn’t help either. A snow storm slows the pair down and they have to make shelter really fast and try to stay warm. I’ve always remembered a clip from the original trailer of Berenger saying to Poitier, “I never saw frostbite on a black guy before”. That line didn’t make it to the final film. There’s a few clips from the trailer that never made it to the final film, but that one in particular always stuck in my head.
Berenger starts as a very no-nonsense, possessed man trying to save his love. He’s not happy to have Poitier with him slowing him down and is ready to leave him behind the first chance he can, but Poitier is stubborn and sticks with him every step of the way.
As they gradually close ground and get closer to catching up to Sarah and her kidnapper, there’s the expected levity and bantering as Poitier and Berenger get more comfortable with one another and a mutual respect begins to grow between them. It’s pretty much the standard cop buddy formula, but director Robert Spottiswoode and the actors make it work. It might not be original, but it’s still fun.
I won’t spill the beans on the killers identity. It’s not like it’s a key to enjoying the film, but it was meant to be a surprising reveal when the film was first released. It’s interesting to look back at now, since the promotion of the film downplayed the villain’s identity amongst this group of hikers. We never get to see his face in the first section of the film where the initial diamond robbery takes place and we’re meant to wonder who out of this group is the bad guy.
The casting of the hiking group is a strategic move to keep audiences guessing. The cast is filled with recognizable character actors, who anyone of them could make a good candidate as the real bad guy. Is it Richard Masur or Kevin Scannell or Clancy Brown or Andrew Robinson or Frederick Coffin??? It could be any of these guys who’s the psychopathic killer when you were watching this in 1988!
And the film balances that buildup really well. There’s no subtle tipoffs, each actor is given equal screen time, none of them stand at the forefront of suspicion. A quick google search will reveal the secret of who it is, but I won’t give it away here. I’ll just say, he’s very good, very sinister, compassionless and a worthy adversary for our heroes, who you’re really rooting for to get him. His dramatic reveal as he forces the other hikers to make a quick exit from the film is pretty brutal and terrifying.
The dynamic changes for Berenger and Poitier when they land back to civilization. Now Poitier takes charge, knows how to investigate a crime scene, can handle the lawful route they need to navigate and Berenger willingly follows along from the backseat.
Things end up culminating in a pretty standard chase and shootout climax. It’s a predictable ending, but it’s well put together and a satisfying conclusion to this thriller.
By the way, in the UK Shoot To Kill was retitled Deadly Pursuit due to a recent shooting rampage that occurred right before its release.
It remains an entertaining old fashioned, well made thriller. It doesn’t seem as well remembered as some of the more glossy and popular action films of the 1980s, but it’s an underrated actioner that delivers and is waiting to be rediscovered. It’s one of Poitier’s latter successes in his career and one of the better made and enjoyable Berenger action films he would star in.
If you end up mindlessly scrolling through the action category on your favorite streaming service and see Shoot To Kill (or Deadly Pursuit) is available, take a chance on it. It won’t disappoint.