IAB’s Shelf: “Stakeout”(1987) & “Shoot to Kill”(1988) IAB’s Shelf: “Stakeout”(1987) & “Shoot to Kill”(1988)
Two late 80's R-rated buddy action-movies from Touchstone Pictures are off the shelf this time: "Stakeout" and "Shoot to Kill"... IAB’s Shelf: “Stakeout”(1987) & “Shoot to Kill”(1988)

Touchstone is an interesting footnote in Disney’s history. The Touchstone banner was founded in 1984 as Touchstone Films, with the intention to release films “targeted to adult audiences with more nature themes and darker tones than those released under Walt Disney Pictures“. It’s original intent was to release a string PG-rated pictures, beginning with Ron Howard‘s “Splash” in 1984. But quite soon they evolved into something more, changed their name to Touchstone Pictures and were now releasing even R-rated movies, such as Paul Mazursky‘s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills“(1986) and Martin Scorsese‘s “The Color of Money“(1986) as well as the two movies I’m going to talk about shortly. They also sometimes distributed certain films internationally which were distributed by a different studio in the US. I’ll give you an example: John Woo‘s “Face/Off” and Paul Verhoeven‘s “Starship Troopers” were released under Touchstone banner here in Europe. Now there’s something to think about. Those two movies are about as far away from Disney-material as can get, but them’s are the facts.

Touchstone was also the banner under which Jerry Bruckheimer released most of his films (The Ref, Con Air, Enemy of the State, Armageddon, Gone in 60 Seconds, Coyote Ugly, Pearl Harbor, Bad Company, Veronica Guerin, King Arthur and Déjà Vu) since he made a production deal with Disney in 1993. From 2009 to 2016 the Touchstone label was primarily used by Disney to distribute DreamWorks movies. After this deal ended, the label currently remains inactive.

So, getting to the two pictures at hand this time; they have their similarities – they are both movies that I taped from the TV in the early 90’s and must’ve watched them both dozens of times – almost religiously (I swear, at one time I could’ve probably dictated them by heart), they are both R-rated, both are buddy-action movies, both are filmed in Vancouver and nearabouts and both were made by jouneymen action-directors who were pretty much in their prime during the eighties. And both of these directors also pretty much disappeared from the grid once the 90’s were over. Granted, there are differences as well – one is more of a comedy and the other a chase-thriller.

 

“Stakeout” (1987)
Dir. John Badham
Scr. Jim Kouf

After a violent criminal Richard “Stick” Montgomery(Aidan Quinn) escapes from prison, Seattle Police detectives Chris Lecce(Richard Dreyfuss) and Bill Reimers(Emilio Estevez) are assigned to the night shift of a stakeout of Montgomery’s former girlfriend, Maria McGuire(Madeleine Stowe). The two are not exactly volunteers for this job, but after they completely fumble a simple arrest in the beginning of the film, resulting in a forklift being dunked into the sea and the suspect getting away, they don’t have much of a choice. What begins as a boring routine assignment – with the exception of more an more escalating pranks that the night shift and the day shift(Dan Lauria, Forest Whitaker) keep pulling on each other – soon take a turn to something more serious, as Chris, who after the first night arrives into an empty apartment as his girlfriend has moved out, keeps bumping into Maria in the neighborhood and gets involved with her life and the two are soon in a blossoming relationship – although in attempting to conceal his identity, Chris keeps falling into a continuously expanding vortex of little white lies. In the meantime, Montgomery and his cousin are traveling to Seattle to retrieve some money he has stashed into Maria’s apartment while trying to avoid the police…

I gotta start with this one; you know – it never hit me until I did this re-watch after a long long time since I saw this last, that this movie actually does something insanely clever. You know how in all these buddy cop-movies where there’s an older guy and a younger guy, the older guy is almost always the more responsible family man – and the young guy is the loose cannon who keeps fucking up? Well – “Stakeout” does the EXACT opposite thing. It’s Dreyfuss who is the more impulsive one and almost jeopardizes the entire stakeout and Estevez is the one who is happily married and has kids. I never realized that until now. One gets more recipient with age, I guess.

It’s the type of movie that lives or dies with the chemistry of the lead actors. And fortunately Dreyfuss and Estevez hit it off like a house on fire. From the first scene you buy the fact that these two have been partners for a long time already, as they have reached that “bickering old married couple” stage – and their comedic timing is perfectly in sync. Some of the things they do are so spontaneous, that there must’ve been a lot of improvisation going on set. The one thing that just HAS to be improv, is in a scene where the two characters are asking each other trivia questions in order to keep themselves awake, and Estevez asks “okay, what movie is this from? ‘well this was not a boating accident!!!'” and Dreyfuss plays ball by responding that he doesn’t know. (At this point I actually had to check, and it in fact was based on a real incident that happened in-between filming and was written into the movie, so Dreyfuss really DIDN’T recognize the quote. Huh.) This was pretty much the first major movie role for both Aidan Quinn and Madeleine Stowe, and they do good work here; Quinn is a very imposing villain, and Stowe is definitely not atypical damsel-in-distress, she holds her own in the scenes with Dreyfuss, and her character actually ends up saving HIS life at the end (okay – there is the Obligatory Shower Scene there, that might be seen as extremely objectifying in today’s standards, but this was the 90’s). The “day shift”-guys, Dan Lauria and Forest Whitaker are basically there to just antagonize the lead duo, but they work well together and have good chemistry as well. You get the sense that all of the actors playing detectives might have hung out before production to develop the interactions between each other – it just feels VERY natural.

Of the two directors featured here, John Badham is definitely the more visually stylized one (he likes his twisted/dutched camera-angles and shadows) and he’s got great support here in the shape of the Australian Director of Photography John Seale (“Witness”, “The Mosquito Coast”, “Rain Man”). In fact, in a fantastically filmed car chase that ends the second act, you can see that Seale is using the same techniques he patented on “The Hitcher” just a year before this: in that film Seale was probably one of the first DoP’s that started to film high-speed car chases with a crane mounted on top of a fast-moving vehicle (just as trivia: Seale got out of retirement to film George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and he filmed pretty much ALL of the car action with the latest model crane car). This gives the scenes a whole new (at that time) level of kinetic energy. And the film looks great elsewhere as well, as it gets great use of the locations in Vancouver. Yes – the film is set in Seattle but was shot in Vancouver. At least that’s geographically pretty close instead of “Vancouver for L.A”, which has been a standard in many projects. Obviously there are some 80’s-90’s tropes there, like the end hide & seek inside the “Factory of blue smoke and orange lights”, but even that is a sawmill instead of the usual steel factory. Badham also gives more than one homage to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window“, as most of the movie really is two guys looking at the house across the street with binoculars & camera, so it’s sort of given that they would pay tribute to the one that wrote the rulebook on these.

There was one other thing I noticed in this rewatch, which made me thing of a script error or something: the person who arrives to pick up Montgomery in a boat at the end of the movie is the SAME guy who slipped away from Chris and Bill in the opening scene. Now in itself that wouldn’t mean anything. He comes there and instantly identifies them. But… In around the middle of the movie this guy is seen at a Police station, arrested. And he DID in fact escape from two officers in the beginning, assaulted one – with a KNIFE, no less – and he SHOT at them. Think about this. The guy is seen to be arrested, and the end scene is really only a couple of days after that. Either Seattle courts give a hell of a lot of leeway into releasing suspects who assault police officers with intent to kill or there is a clear script error there (or a deleted scene where he escapes police custody). But that’s just me – it just sort of got into my head and kept screaming in there and wouldn’t get out.

But, I digress: “Stakeout” is still one helluva entertaining film with a really top-notch cast.

 

“Shoot To Kill” (1988)
Dir. Roger Spottiswoode
Scr. Harv Zimmel, Michael Burton, Dan Petrie jr. (story by Harv Zimmel)

FBI Agent Warren Stantin(Sidney Poitier) tries to apprehend a ruthless extortionist from getting his hand on a large quantity of diamonds. The man keeps a jeweller’s wife and maid as hostage, and when he realizes he’s surrounded, he executes the maid just to make a point. He leaves with the wife, while Stantin is forced to follow with the diamonds. After the drop-off, he executes the jeweller’s wife – just to make another point. He then misdirects the Feds and escapes. Stantin follows whatever leads he has, and finally gets the right one: it turns out that the killer has infiltrated a group of men who are on a guided fishing-trip near the US-Canada border. The guide leading them is Sarah Renell(Kirstie Alley). Stantin teams up with Sarah’s boyfriend/expert moutaineer and tracker Jonathan Knox(Tom Berenger) in order to track the group down. Knox is (of course) highly suspicious of this “city guy” and wants to go on the hunt by himself, but Stantin is adamant at following along. The two must go through ravines, over rivers, through snow, some serious bonding-time and a bear until they can catch up with the killer…

First observation: now here’s essentially a Disney-movie, which begins with an Asian maid being shot in the back and an elderly woman shot in the eye. How’s that for “more mature” themes? “Shoot to Kill” is definitely a more edgy and violent piece than “Stakeout“. Not that there isn’t humor as well – but it’s mostly just Stantin reacting to this “fish out of water”-situation he’s in. But, back to that opening sequence; we never see the killer. And here’s the clever trick THIS movie does: the killer is not revealed until the mid-point of the film. After we learn that he’s in this hiking party, we cut to the hiking party, and the filmmakers decided to fill the cast of that group full of Red Herrings – guys who are known from playing heavies in other films. We have Andrew Robinson from “Dirty Harry“, we have Clancy Brown from “Highlander“, we have Frederick Coffin, Richard Masur and that One Guy Who’s in That Thing (Kevin Scannell). And the script is very smart in amping up the paranoia – not necessarily in the group, but in the audience – as each of them keep acting suspiciously. In case someone hasn’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the killers identity here (though I’m sure it will be spoiled in the comment section).

This was Sidney Poitier‘s first movie role in 10 years, but you wouldn’t notice it while watching. He’s as professional and driven as he always was. Stantin is one of those obsessed FBI guys who “always gets his man”, but in the course of the movie his obsession sort of turns into an obsession to prove Knox that he can handle himself in the wilderness. Also, there’s a nice piece of meta-trivia in the movie, when Stantin says that in the past he has “been up against the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan and the KGB” – all referencing Poitier’s films: “Let’s Do It Again“(1975), “In the Heat of the Night“(1967) and “Little Nikita“(1988). Nice meta moment there. Then there’s Berenger – which makes me ask that old question once again “what the hell happened to Tom Berenger‘s career in the 90’s?”. I mean, the guy was on such a roll in the 80’s, with “The Big Chill“(1983), “Fear City“(1984), getting an Oscar-nomination for “Platoon” in 1986…then came the 90’s and pretty soon he just kinda disappeared into the DTV and TV-movie hell with the only real appearances in high-profile movies being bit-parts in “Training Day” and “Inception“. My theory? “Sliver“(1993) killed him. Think about it: who were the only people who sort of survived from that movie with a career? Sharon Stone and director Phillip Noyce. Berenger? William Baldwin? Those guys were GONE after that movie. But, enough about “Sliver“, where was I? So yes – Poitier and Berenger make a very good team here. These are two rugged professionals in their fields, who will go through, over or around every obstacle until the reach their goal . The group of Red Herrings all do great work as well, keeping the audience guessing right up until that moment of revelation. And you can even buy Kirstie Alley as a toughened mountain-guide, although her character DOES fall into that “damsel in distress”-hole a bit too easily. And hell – there’s great performances from a moose and a bear, too.

So, while John Badham is the more stylized director of the two, Roger Spottiswoode is a bit more of a grounded one. His speciality is the economical and efficient way of filming the action scenes: there is not a single wasted shot there, everything cuts together perfectly and the geography of the action is always clear. I think this must be because of him starting his career as an editor. Editor for Sam Peckinpah in “Straw Dogs“(1971) and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid“(1973), no less. So you know he got schooled by the MASTER. The movie was photographed by Michael Chapman (“Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”), so things are looking good as well. There are no studio-bound greenscreen shots here – this crew and these actors were out there on the mountains, and the film makes great use of the beautiful scenery. The end chase through the streets of Vancouver and on a ferry might feel a bit more standard, but they still look good – and they work better if you think of them as the swapping of the elements; here it is the Berenger’s character who is on a strange turf.

“Can you bear the consequences?”

Shoot to Kill”(titled “Deadly Pursuit” in the UK) is still a very energetic chase movie, with some absolutely breathtaking scenery and great performances throughout. And– it’s definitely not that watered-down PG-13 bullshit that’s the standard today. I could throw out an old cliche – regarding BOTH of these movies here – “they don’t make ’em like these any more“. But the truth is they really DON’T make ’em like these anymore!

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I Am Better

Coming from the frozen wastelands of Finnish tundra. Mr. Better seeks warmth from his television & home theater and all the wonders they provide. He occasionally dabbles in the arts of drawing and photography.