When actor Sidney Poitier stepped away from the spotlight in the late 70s and early 80s and turned his attention to directing, the world assumed that his days in front of the camera were over. After helming a series of moderately received comedies such as Stir Crazy and Hanky Panky, it seemed he forging a career path as a comedy director. And so when he bound back onto the big screen 10 years later in the hard-edged thriller Shoot To Kill (known as Deadly Pursuit outside of America), he brought with him the stoic bravado that audiences knew and loved.
The film had him tracing familiar ground as an unyielding FBI agent on the hunt for a serial killer in the rugged mountains of America’s Pacific North West. It is a role that bore a striking resemblance to his famous Virgil Tibbs character, and the film could have easily qualified as a fourth instalment in his Mr. Tibbs series.
When an extortion goes wrong and a killer eludes the cops by disappearing into the wilderness, Poitier’s character pursues him with the help of a local tour guide – played by Tom Berenger – and finds himself a city-dwelling sophisticate in a hostile environment. His street smarts and years of experience in law enforcement become obsolete as he is forced to rely on a revenge-fuelled man whose girlfriend (Kirstie Alley) is guiding a tour group through the mountains, unaware that a member of her party is the cold blooded killer.
Shoot To Kill is a smart and gripping thriller that plays with the genre’s conventions spiritedly – yet carefully – while fashioning a relentless story that maintains its stamina until the final frame. Adding to the thrill of the chase is the fact that the killer’s identity remains a mystery for over half of the film. He blends in with his tour party with intentions of killing them all before taking the guide hostage; forcing her to lead him across the border into Canada. The ensemble of performers make up an example of smart casting, with the likes of Richard Masur, Clancy Brown, Andrew Robinson and Frederick Coffin having all previously played villainous characters. Director Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch, Tomorrow Never Dies, The 6th Day) manipulates this fact while laying out a series of red herrings that have the audience constantly second-guessing themselves. The result is a spirited and intelligent thrill-ride that sits comfortably amongst classic survivalist films like Rambo, Deliverance and Southern Comfort.
Poitier and Berenger make for an unlikely odd couple with a chemistry that lends a comedic reprieve to the proceedings. Their on-screen rapport is wonderful and their ability to deliver genuine comedy amongst an otherwise grim narrative helps qualify the film and secure its reputation as one of the best (maintaining a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
Almost 30 years have passed since Shoot To Kill played theatrically and despite all of those years, the film holds up brilliantly and remains as compelling now as it did then. The reliance on character-driven drama and a learned attention to the genre’s conventions make it a stalwart film that has, sadly, fallen into the abyss of forgotten gems. It remains unavailable in Australia, with its most recent home-entertainment release being on VHS in the early 90s. Fortunately, it is available on DVD in other territories and is a film well worth the effort of adding to your collection.