Intense, minimalistic, and taut, the UK thriller Sitting Target showcases the singular British actor Oliver Reed at his most primal. Playing a man seething with rage and yet ultimately driven by deeper passions that don’t become evident until the very end of the story, Reed maintains an amazing level of ferocity from the first frame to the last. Make no mistake, Sitting Target is a violent revenge saga filled with chase scenes, explosions, and shootouts. Within those parameters, however, it’s credible and effective. Freddie Jones, Ian McShane, and Edward Woodward deliver excellent supporting performances while director Douglas Hickox and cinematographer Edward Scalfe employ consistently imaginative camera angles and film editor John Glen (a frequent participant in 007 movies) creates expert pacing. Best of all, the film seems quite straightforward until the aforementioned ending, which casts everything that came before in a new light. In sum, Sitting Target is more than just adrenalized escapism.
Reed stars as Harry, a career criminal serving a long term in jail alongside fellow crook Birdy (McShane). The filmmakers introduce Harry perfectly, showing him performing a brutal exercise regimen in his dark cell—he’s perpetually ready for action. One day, Harry’s wife, Pat (Jill St. John), visits him in jail with terrible news. He’s lost his appeal, meaning he’ll be imprisoned for years. Making matters worse, Pat reveals that she’s leaving Harry for another man, whose baby she now carries. Harry responds by smashing his hand through the glass separating him from Pat and nearly strangling her to death. Determined to exact revenge for her betrayal, Harry arranges to break out of jail with Birdy and wealthy crook MacNeil (Jones). The escape sequence is terrific, generating real danger and tension while illustrating fundamental differences between the escapees. Once news of Harry’s jailbreak spreads, policeman Milton (Woodward) assumes responsibility for Pat’s safety. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, because for Harry, it’s not enough to destroy Pat. He wants her to know what’s coming.
Sitting Target is far from perfect. A subplot of Birdy and Harry harassing a former colleague for money chews up screen time, and one scene hinges on Harry shooting a target from an enormous distance with a pistol, which seems iffy. That said, the pros outweigh the cons, no pun intended. The action scenes are strong, the overall atmosphere is believably grim, and the sheer level of testosterone surging through the movie’s veins is incredible. St. John is the weak link, giving a decorative performance and rendering a questionable British accent, though she doesn’t diminish the overall impact. FYI, UK actor Frank Finlay shares a few scenes with Reed. Not long afterward, the players joined forces for Richard Lester’s superlative adventure films The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).
Sitting Target: GROOVY