1980's Flashback Cinema

Shoot to Kill (1988)

Shoot to Kill 1988

Everybody else up here acts like they’ve never seen a black man before. Why should the bear be different? –Sidney Poitier as FBI Agent Warren Stantin in Shoot to Kill (1988)

As I aim to fill in some of the fleeting gaps in my 80’s moviewatching resume, I’ll report on my progress in this general space. I believe I owe this viewing to a recommendation from Brian Saur of Rupert Pupkin Speaks and the Pure Cinema Podcast. His thoughts on Shoot to Kill prompted me to adjust my Netflix  queue accordingly.

Shoot to Kill Elevator Pitch:

A black FBI agent teams up with a grizzled white woodsman/tracker to hunt down a murderer who’s assumed the identity of a hiker and joined a group of weekend hikers in the Pacific Northwest and taken Kirstie Alley (she’s on a break from Cheers) hostage. It’s the bizarro 48 Hrs.!

Shoot to Kill lobby card

It’s Tom Berenger’s World After All

But this 1988 thriller has another claim to fame. Shoot to Kill boasts Sidney Poitier’s first big screen appearance in 11 years. After 1977’s A Piece of the Action (which he also directed), Poitier went behind the camera for his next three movies. During this time period Poitier directed Stir Crazy (1980), Hanky Panky (1982) and the dance battle flick Fast Forward (1985).

Meanwhile Berenger’s star had reached it’s zenith at the tail end of the decade after starring in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1985) and Ridley Scott’s underrated (and steamy) thriller Someone to Watch Over Me (1987).

Who couldn’t love a face like that?

The buddy cop premise, a reliable holdover from 1970’s cinema, held strong throughout the 80’s. Tossing two mismatched characters together on a quest to achieve a common goal often creates instant tension and comedy. The concept done well results in entertainers like the aforementioned 48 Hrs. (1982), Lethal Weapon (1987) and Midnight Run (1989). Also, I’d like to throw out a special mention for the The Nice Guys (2016) just because it’s always worth the keystrokes.

Race Relations of the 1980s

Racial tension regularly figures into these scenarios, and Roger Spottiswoode’s Shoot to Kill offers its share of quips about a black man lost in the woods. Spottiswoode’s film never turns Poitier into a racial caricature because it already established Poitier’s FBI agent as hardboiled and utterly capable of navigating urbanity. He’s just city folk, and Knox (Tom Berenger) is a reclusive woodsman whose irascible personality has earned him few friends where there were already few friends to earn.

Though I do take a small issue with the film’s comical insistence on making FBI agent Warren Stantin an action hero. Poitier, who was in his 60’s by this point, hurdles over police cars (when running around them would have clearly been faster) and spends large portions of the film sliding and leaping and running. Even though I know the legendary actor’s still with us, I legitimately felt concern for his retrospective health. It’s not that Poitier’s giving a bad performance here — it’s just that he seems constantly uncomfortable handling the required and sometimes unnecessary physicality.

Humor comes easy between the actors. I’ve always felt that Berenger had a natural gift for understated drollness. As the two are forced to pursue the murderer (the always terrific Clancy Brown) and his hostage through remote wilderness, the isolation brings out the dramatic and comedic best in both.

Shoot to Kill Verdict:

As a genre film, Shoot to Kill excels at expeditiously delivering its premise. The mismatched heroes begrudgingly work together for the moral good and come to respect each other during the process. Ruminate too hard and you’ll expose plenty of questionable narrative decisions. Filling the gaps likely would have killed the film’s momentum. (Can a handgun kill underwater? Wouldn’t Sidney have broken a hip with a leap onto a departing ferry? Why don’t we have more FBI agents on this case?)

Rides like Spottiswoode’s Shoot to Kill don’t need airtight logic; they just require charismatic leads navigating escalating tension with a few laughs about their incompatibility. In that respect, anyone looking back to 1988 with any eye on “a bandanna-clad Tom Berenger hauling 61-year-old Sir Sidney through the woods” thriller won’t be disappointed.

Fine genre entertainment, even beyond those of us who wax nostalgic for the days when Tom Berenger headlined action thrillers.

Shoot to Kill (1988) is available on a ragged 2003 DVD from Amazon. It is at the very least anamorphic, but the print could use significant cleanup. Considering it was released by Touchstone Pictures (Disney), I don’t have much hope that this will reach Blu-ray anytime soon.


James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Lately it’s been movies. Follow his blog at and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

shoot to kill netflix

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1980's Flashback Cinema

Platoon, Black Widow & Bon Jovi: 80’s Flashblack

I’d intended to start this series from the beginning of the year. I wanted to highlight the films that ranked #1 at the Box Office in 1987 and then a lesser seen movie that maybe you’d missed. But here we are. It’s almost March and I’m staring at my first blinking cursor. 1987 was a hugely formative year for me. I turned 9 in 1987 and I don’t know if you remember what it’s like to be 9… or maybe your experience differed wildly from mine… but in 1987 I completed my transformation into a cinema sponge.

My early love of film had just kicked in. I began spending substantial amounts of time browsing the racks at my local video store in Marcellus, MI while my grandmother or my mom idled patiently in the new release section. I had few limitations about what I could or could not watch. The only deterrent to watching an R-rated film was the conversation my mom would inevitable have with me about how we “don’t use those kinds of words,” despite the fact that my dad used those specific and colorful words quite frequently. (To be fair, she put an asterisk on those asides as well.)

As you may have noticed, the 1980’s are pure nostalgia for me. I’ve been neglecting that nostalgia lately, distracted by this, that and the other. A couple of weeks ago, I began plotting a personal retrospective of films from 1987 for their 30th anniversary. I have “Underrated” obligations for and goddammit I just love the wise and wonderful cinema of the 80’s. I don’t necessarily need an excuse to watch 80’s movies, but I’ll gladly take it when the opportunity arises.

Enough about that. Let’s hop in the wayback machine. Set your dial to the week of February 23rd, 1987, when the #1 movie at the box office was…

Platoon (1986, dir. Oliver Stone)

platoon 1986

Since we’re joining 1987 in medias res, let’s recap. Platoon marks only the third #1 film of the year, following hot on the tails of the oft forgotten Richard Pryor dramedy Critical Condition and Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child. Now, you may have already interjected: “But but but Platoon was released in 1986!” And you’d be right. Oliver Stone dispatched Platoon seven weeks earlier on a limited release to qualify for Oscar season. Once the film went wide on February 1st, it remained there until March 1st. This week represents its final week in the top slot.

Weekend results February 20 – February 22:

  1. Platoon
  2. Mannequin
  3. Outrageous Fortune
  4. Over the Top
  5. Black Widow

Roger Ebert’s opened his 4-star review of Platoon with the following statement:

It was Francois Truffaut who said that it’s not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun. If Truffaut had lived to see Platoon the best film of 1986, he might have wanted to modify his opinion.

Platoon would, as we likely remember, go on to win the Academy Awards for best picture and best director. AFI placed the film at #83 and #86 on its two 100 Years… 100 Films lists. I remember watching Platoon for the first time later that year, and I can’t recall if it was my first experience with a film about Vietnam. It was certainly the first that logged any lasting memory. I wouldn’t watch Apocalypse Now until I was well into my teens. The spectacle and brutality stayed with me. I didn’t revisit Platoon until my college film course on the politics of Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg — and even then is was a course requirement. I didn’t choose to watch Platoon again.

platoon 1986

Out of all of Stone’s films in my opinion, two stand head and shoulders above the rest. Salvador and Platoon. I never felt a kinship with Platoon — it was too brutal, too amorphous. The film’s branching, episodic construct conveyed the uncertain experience of Vietnam. Many books written by soldiers in the war share a similar fractured construct. My recommendation: read Dispatches by Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Both of these informed and expanded my understanding of the Vietnam War and helped me come to terms with the world presented by Oliver Stone.

It’s natural to place Platoon up next to Born on the Fourth of July as Stone’s companion pieces on the Vietnam experience — (plus with Heaven & Earth, the three form a trilogy, but I don’t have memory enough to provide a relevant discussion of the latter). There’s a natural give and take between the two films, but I find that Fourth of July loses impact due to melodramatic artifice. John Williams’ score hammers home quiet moments with so much pomp and bluster that it’s hard to get too close to Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic. Platoon, however, uses the tools of cinema to bring us further into the troubled minds and souls of the unfortunate humans forced to serve a politicians war for uncertain gain.

willem dafoe platoon

Willem’ Dafoe’s famous image — kneeling, arms thrust to the heavens — feels innately cinematic. The posture feels as old as cinema itself. Consider the parodies and instant recognition — a crane shot looking down over a man in the rain, soaked to the bone, his arms raised. Cinematic shorthand for agony… or perhaps renewed spirit. The spectrum between The Shawshank Redemption and PlatoonStone took this image directly from a famous photograph of soldiers in Vietnam.

vietnam platoon image
1968 Associated Press photo from Vietnam by Art Greenspon


Stone wanted to translate these images to screen. To convey the real life horror and the ways, in fact, these soldiers could not cope. These are not great men, and Platoon depicts an entire convoy of supremely damaged humans. Villains in just about any other traditional narrative. Charlie Sheen plays our protagonist, but even that in name only. He’s a solider, not unlike the rest. He merely acts before he loses his humanity.

Platoon remains essential, arguably the most essential and timeless film Stone has made. The Sheen DNA notwitshanding, the film also owes a great debt to Apocalypse Now. The way the two use classical music to transcend the individual, fleeting moment to moment gruntwork and jungle humping. Drug-fueled imagery. The specter of mental illness that haunts these characters.

If Apocalypse Now is the most perfect, stylized version of Vietnam put on film, Platoon is the more grounded, more dire sibling, missing many of the moments of poignant, comic relief that Coppola sprinkles through his masterpiece.

B-Side Recommendation for this week in 1987:

black widow quad 1987


Black Widow (dir. Bob Rafelson)

Here’s my reprieve from the rigors of male on male violence. Placing fifth at the box office this week in 1987 — Black Widow, starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, featured a 120-minute cat-and-mouse thriller between a female cop and a female killer. Rather a rarity in 1987… or really any year. Though the film features a few notable male co-stars in minor supporting roles such as Dennis Hopper and Nicol Williamson, Black Widow focuses entirely on a detective’s (Winger) hunt for a killer (Russell) who marries her victims, takes their money and manages a clean getaway.

The script by Ronald Bass rather deftly re-orients a traditional heterosexual thriller narrative. Cop hunts killer. Cop gets too close, falls for killer. Black Widow becomes more interesting merely because of the cop gender swap. Our “plain Jane” detective must enter the killer’s world in order to find proof of her guilt. She must shed her dowdy street clothes to become part of the rich and lovely and fabulous. As she inserts herself into the Black Widow’s world, she begins to enjoy her false identity. She also finds herself infatuated with Theresa Russell’s killer. There’s a clear, unspoken sexual attraction, highlighted in a scuba diving class in which the two practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

That said, this could have even better with a different director, perhaps. One suited to bringing forth the subtleties in a story about two mirror-image women. Rafelson’s a capable helmer, but in terms of conveying the female perspective Man Trouble and The Postman Always Rings Twice stand as his most relevant filmographic entries. Still, the Winger/Russell tete-a-tete makes this essential 80’s viewing… two excellent actresses at the height of their powers owning a film that’s now largely forgotten. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you can always revisit Andrew McCarthy in Mannequin.

mannequin 1987


And as I’ll do with every one of these time capsule posts, I’ll leave you with the #1 song on the charts for this week in 1987.


Referenced above:


Platoon (1986, dir. Oliver Stone) – available on Blu-ray
Black Widow (1987, dir. Bob Rafelson) – available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Mannequin (1987, dir. Michael Gottlieb) – available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.


Dispatches (1991, Michael Herr)
The Things They Carried (1990, Tim O’Brien)


Bon Jovi, Slippery When Wet (1987)