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SHOOT TO KILL – John Scott


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Shoot to Kill is a fun, enjoyable action thriller directed by Roger Spottiswoode, starring Sidney Poitier as FBI agent Warren Stanton, who is on the trail of a brutal jewel thief who killed two people during his last heist. Stanton discovers that the murderer is trying to escape north to Canada by joining a group of sports hunters on a guided expedition in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest; unbeknownst to the guide, Sara (Kirstie Alley), he has killed one of the hunters, and is now pretending to be him. In order to stop the killer before he crosses the border, Stanton hires Jonathan (Tom Berenger), a local outdoorsman – and Sarah’s boyfriend – to help guide him through the wilderness, and they set off in hot pursuit. The film has two quirks which make it stand out from other films of its type. The first is the constant bickering between the hardy Berenger and city boy Poitier, who don’t like each other but have to rely on each other to survive in true buddy cop fashion. The second is the fact that the audience doesn’t find out which of the group of sports hunters is the killer until well into the second half of the movie – a conceit made cleverer due to the producers casting four men known for playing ruthless movie villains as the hunters: Clancy Brown, Frederick Coffin, Richard Masur, and Andrew Robinson.

The score for Shoot to Kill is by the brilliant but under-appreciated English composer John Scott, for whom the film remains one of the biggest box office successes of his career. Scott is one of those composers who regularly wrote music for films that were beneath him: his scores were consistently outstanding, but the films themselves were more often than not box office flops, either as a result of them being low-profile to begin with, or by them simply being not very good. Shoot to Kill was a rarity – a fairly high profile studio movie which was pretty good and was a hit with audiences. He was only 57 when he wrote it, and so could have reasonably expected to receive a post-success career boost, but instead Scott only wrote music for one more major studio feature, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Lionheart in 1990, and since then he has become one of Hollywood’s forgotten composers. It’s a real shame because, as I mentioned, his music usually always over-achieves.

The score’s main theme, introduced in the “Main Title,” is a wonderfully exciting piece for ominous strings, jazzy low-end piano riffs, and a bank of unexpectedly sexy saxophones, although it does lose a couple of points for including a now terribly dated synth percussion idea. After this initial opening the main theme is only heard in fragments during the body of the score itself, hinting at the melody, lurking around the fringes of the film; by hiding it, Scott is cleverly hinting at the similarly hidden identity of the killer, and he doesn’t bring it back in full until late on, after his face is finally revealed to the audience in “And the Killer Is”.

Instead, the bulk of the score is made up of suspense and action, and there are some terrific set pieces. The initial murder sequence, “Kill My Wife Next,” sees Scott taking the fragmented saxophone main theme and carefully placing it into a nail-biting 6-minute suspense sequence filled with Herrmannesque strings, dark piano clusters, softly clashing gongs, and throbbing brass figures. The subsequent “Boat Chase” has some hints of James Horner’s Aliens about it, both in the lonely-sounding brass writing, and in the dense and exciting main action sequence, where Scott again injects fragments of the main theme into a flurry of whirling strings, expressive brass clusters, and snare drum riffs.

Several other cues feature the main theme prominently, where it is often set against different instrumental or rhythmic ideas to keep the score interesting. For example, “The Road Block” features the main theme underpinned by a rolling piano motif, while “Bishop’s Falls” transfers the theme from saxophone to flutes, and “Blazing Saddle” gives it an echo effect but, unfortunately, offsets it with more of the slightly cheesy-sounding synth percussion. Later, “Climbing Trek” and both parts of “The Storm” transpose the theme from saxophones to either strings or horns, and pair it with a determined-sounding 7-note contrapuntal motif, giving it a sense of rugged fortitude. The similar-sounding “The Chimney” comes across like something Jerry Goldsmith might have written during the same time period, using synth pads and prototype drum loops to give the main theme a contemporary kick; in fact, a lot Shoot to Kill sounds like a lost Goldsmith 1980s action score, and that is absolutely intended to be a compliment.

Many of the thrilling ideas from the boat chase sequence reappear in the score’s main action tracks, all of which feature pulsating percussion rhythms to maintain the tension, flurried outbursts from all sections of the orchestra to spotlight specific moments, and jazzy inflections to ensure consistency with the tone of the rest of the score. “It’s A Long Way Down,” the revelatory “The Bodies,” the high-stakes “Mr. Bear,” and the gripping “Sara’s Best Shot” are especially memorable, while the emotional “Say Your Name” gives depth and feeling to Sara’s plight through some touching woodwind passages that again riff on the main theme, after she is left alone as the final hostage of the deranged murderer.

The finale of the score, “Let Her Go Or Die,” underscores the film’s conclusive chase sequence on board a passenger ferry off the coast of Vancouver, and is an 11-minute master class of action and suspense scoring. Scott’s jazz background plays an important part in the rhythmic undercurrent of the piece, as syncopated percussion riffs shift around underneath the orchestra to create a constant sense of movement. Fragments of the main theme dart around from low strings to trumpets. A throbbing 8-note action motif emerges at the 2:09 mark in the strings, underpinned by an electric bass guitar pulse, rapped snares, staccato trumpets, and eventually an effortlessly cool orchestral rock-jazz arrangement of the main theme that Lalo Schifrin would have been proud to own. Everything comes together in the “End Titles,” which provides the fullest statement of the main theme, richly arranged for the entire orchestra, with especially notable statements for solo oboe, noble horns, and sweeping strings.

The score for Shoot to Kill was never released on CD at the time the film came out, although an unexpectedly high quality bootleg did make its way onto the secondary market at some point in the late 1990s. Intrada Records finally rescued the score from oblivion in 2011 with this outstanding release of the complete score, which includes several alternate takes and bonus cues, and was mastered from the original 32-track digital scoring session elements. For me, Shoot to Kill is one of the best orchestral action-thriller scores of the 1980s, with a strong and memorable main theme, and a whole load of superb action music that does its job without overloading or overwhelming the listener – instead, the classy choices Scott makes show a keen understanding of how to use an orchestra intelligently and efficiently. It’s still a great source of frustration to me that John Scott is not better known, especially amongst younger film music aficionados, but Shoot to Kill comes highly recommended as a great place to start exploring his work, especially if you like your orchestral action scores to come with a healthy side order of cool, urban jazz.

Buy the Shoot to Kill soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:30)
  • Kill My Wife Next (6:37)
  • Boat Chase (5:13)
  • The Road Block (1:33)
  • Bishop’s Falls (1:01)
  • Happy Campers (1:55)
  • Blazing Saddle (1:46)
  • I Hate The Woods (0:46)
  • Behold The Gorge (0:42)
  • It’s A Long Way Down No. 1 (0:38)
  • It’s A Long Way Down No. 2 (Parts 1 & 2) (2:34)
  • Climbing Trek (2:50)
  • Not A Bear (0:29)
  • And The Killer Is (3:22)
  • Who’s Jonathan (0:43)
  • The Bodies (3:23)
  • Say Your Name (2:22)
  • The Chimney (1:13)
  • The Storm, Part 1 (2:04)
  • The Storm, Part 2 (2:09)
  • Mr. Bear (1:03)
  • Sara’s Best Shot (2:05)
  • Bingo (0:21)
  • Torching A Fence (2:06)
  • Let Her Go Or Die (10:51)
  • End Titles (3:50)
  • Kill My Wife Next [Original Version] (1:52) – Bonus
  • Bishop’s Falls [Original Version] (1:03) – Bonus
  • It’s A Long Way Down No. 2 (Part 2) [Revised Version] (0:57) – Bonus
  • Climbing Trek [Original Version] (3:02) – Bonus
  • Roller Rink Source No. 1 (2:33) – Bonus
  • Roller Rink Source No. 2 (1:59) – Bonus

Running Time: 77 minutes 34 seconds

Intrada Records ISC-173 (1988/2011)

Music composed and conducted by John Scott. Orchestrations by John Scott. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Johnson and Steve Livingstone. Score produced by John Scott. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

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