MOVIE REVIEW : Aim Is Off on 'Shoot to Kill'

Times Film Critic

If anyone cared to chart the impoverished state of the big commercial American movie in the late 1980s, a perfect place to begin would be with "Shoot to Kill" (citywide). It has an accomplished director: Roger Spottiswoode; a high caliber cast: Sidney Poitier, Tom Berenger, Kirstie Alley and an enviable list of technicians. And it has less substance than a fast-food menu.

The film, which bears the unmistakable mark of a Touchstone product, lures Poitier back to the screen at last, only to saddle him with threadbare black man-white man jokes and even minstrel-show humor that he's avoided for decades.

Berenger gets physical action, monosyllabic grunts and cries from the heart; he crashes through the Pacific Northwest crying "Saaarraah," the way Marlon Brando once wailed "Stellllllla!!"

Kirstie Alley, the Sarah in question, is never allowed to use her intelligence to get the better of a lethal tenderfoot in rugged, unfamiliar country, she's simply dragged along, to kick and scream and struggle.

"Shoot to Kill" also uses some of the best young character actors around, including Richard Masur, Clancy Brown and Andrew Robinson, gives them nothing to play and then disposes of them cavalierly. The movie is grisly, illogical, contradictory, borderline tasteless, riddled with plot holes--and at the same time, decently photographed, cleanly edited and crisply directed. All in all, the waste it represents--of talent, of intelligence, of fine craftsmen and of the audience's good will--is enough to make one howl like a dog.

The setup involves a smart and vicious thief whose trademark is a bullet through the eye of his hostages, after he has collected their ransom. After killing two hostages and eluding FBI super-agent Poitier, the killer takes his sack of diamonds and heads through the wilderness high country toward Canada. However, a detour sign in the screenplay by Harv Zimmel, Michael Burton and Daniel Petrie Jr. forces the murderer to search for the border in the company of four back-packing novice fishermen and Alley, their intrepid trail guide.

Blundering into the tall timber in pursuit are city boy Poitier and mountain recluse Berenger--Alley's sweetheart. Will they endure blisters, blizzards and bears, slack ropes and an even more lethally slack story and emerge as better men and buddies? Are we taking bets?

It's shoddy screen writing that brings these assorted talents to their knees. Hard to tell at whose door to lay this, among three single, independently credited scenarists. First-time writer Harv Zimmel, the press kit tells us, is an outdoor sportsman, ex-deep sea diver and writer of the original story. Michael Burton wrote "Flight of the Navigator," and the film's co-producer, Dan Petrie Jr., did a screenplay for "The Big Easy," which was one of last year's sassy pluses.

But too many cooks overlooked too many mistakes of character and logic here; they seem to have made characters out of smudgy carbons instead of living tissue. The Poitier and Berenger roles are perfunctorily sketched, their exchanges sometimes excruciatingly embarrassing. It's nice to have a leading woman who knows her way around the outdoors, but every chance possible to have intelligence pitted against brute force has been ignored. In "Shoot to Kill" (MPAA-rated R for violence) the scenery is wild, the movie is a walk on the tame side.

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