Shoot to Kill

shoottokillIt’s hard to believe Sidney Poitier hasn’t had a film role in more than 10 years. But consider the pressures on this actor: He was, after all, the standard-bearer, the first black actor to be a full-fledged leading man in Hollywood (and the first black Oscar­ winning best actor, for Lilies of the Field in 1963).

During the ’50s and ’60s, Poitier’s acting choices were limited by the awesome responsibility of his status as barrier-breaker. Like Jackie Robinson, he couldn’t afford to do anything untoward lest it reflect badly not just on himself but on his race. That’s an unfair burden, but someone had to be the first. And it was Poitier. And so he was over-­idealized, made a goody-goody, robbed of much of his onscreen sexual power.

By the time the ’70s rolled around, and everyone was supposedly hipped, Poitier was out. People made fun of his straight-arrow image, and vague intimations of Uncle Tom-ism followed him. He seemed to become more interested in directing than acting anyway, and he went behind the camera.

As a director, Poitier labored hard, but he made some pretty bad movies (Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky). Now he’s come back to the screen, with two movies shot last year: Little Nikita and Shoot to Kill.

Shoot to Kill arrives first, and it’s not a bad comeback vehicle, even if it is an utterly standard action movie. Poitier plays a San Francisco cop who follows a killer up to the Washington forests, where he has to depend on a combative mountain­-man tracker (Tom Berenger, of Platoon) to lead him to the quarry. Meanwhile, the killer’s making a beeline for the Canadian border, with Berenger’s mountain-woman girlfriend (Kirstie Alley) as a hostage-guide.

The pursuit takes the two men through snow, over gorge, up sheer rock. Thus Poitier’s citified ways are played off the rugged setting to produce some fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s formula material, sort of a comedic Deliverance played as a buddy picture.

Too bad; the opening 15-minute sequence promises better. It’s a taut, grabby set piece in which the madman commits the crime that begins the manhunt. Poitier is superb in these early scenes, and the film’s edginess makes you regret the eventual lightening of tone.

Director Roger Spottiswoode has previously done some tasty work, from the hard Central American drama of Under Fire to the small-­town sweetness of The Best of Times. Here he’s out to do a strictly professional job, and he relies on the soaring British Columbia scenery (photographed by Michael Chapman) and the banter of Poitier and Berenger to carry the day. Despite the film’s thinness, it’s easy to take, and perhaps it signals the beginning of a revitalized career for Poitier. It’s very good to have him back. Now isn’t it time to let him play a real nasty?

First published in The Herald, February 16, 1988

Movie did pretty well, b.o.-wise. Spottiswoode was somebody who interested me at the time; he came out of Sam Peckinpah’s editing room, and Under Fire and The Best of Times are both terrific. He’s done some big films (including one Bond picture, Tomorrow Never Dies) and a lot of variety.

 

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