Like so many Asian directorial superstars before him (mostly in genre films), Kitamura Ryuhei has kind of gone Hollywood — or at he’s least tried to. In his defence, he’s doing better than most. Not quite as well as Oscar-winner Ang Lee, but not yet reduced to hired gun on B-grade schlock à la Ringo Lam (sad trombone sound). Still best known for Versus and Godzilla: Final Wars, Kitamura’s third English-language film (after Midnight Meat Train and No One Lives), Downrange, comes at a thorny moment in the zeitgeist. It’s a Japan-US co-production, and so it’s hard to determine how a film predicated on a homicidal lone gunman will go over in United States right now. Will it be seen as glorification of gun violence and as upholding the sanctity of the rights the menace to public health that is the NRA is so determined to protect? Or will it be taken as an inconsequential horror-thriller of little significance, consumed and promptly forgotten? In all likelihood, its underlying politics will be entirely ignored, if they exist at all.
That’s too bad for Kitamura and Kitamura fans, because Downrange is one of the gorehound’s strongest films of late.
Simply stated, Downrange is an efficient, lean, mean, one-note, outdoor chamber piece — but it’s a long, lingering note that Kitamura exploits for maximum impact. Six collegiate types are driving down a deserted stretch of (presumably) California highway when a tire on their SUV blows, forcing them to stop and change it. The six characters are as follows: The Hunk (Jason Tobias), The Black Dude (Anthony Kirlew), The Mystery Girl (Stephanie Pearson), The Social Butterfly (Alexia Yeames), The Excitable One (Rod Hernandez-Farella), and of course The Final Girl (Kelly Connaire). That is truly all you need to know about these people, which admittedly has its own, oddball logic. Kitamura and co-writer Joey O’Bryan care not a whit about the emotional baggage these kinds of movies normally saddle their characters with, effectively stripping away our Pavlovian knee-jerk, ‘Oh, kill that guy!’ reactions. In other words, there’s no ‘slutty girl’ for the sniper to pick off first, no obnoxious jock that ‘gets his’. It’s remarkably refreshing.
In dispensing with this egregious build-up and backstory, Kitamura gets right down to business. It takes roughly, oh, 12 minutes for the culling to commence, as if Kitamura knew exactly what we’re all there for. So, as The Hunk is putting on a new tire, he notices what appears to be a bullet hole in it. Cue the vicious, cat and mouse persecution by a random, unseen sniper hiding in a tree. Somewhere. The next 77 minutes sees the killer get more and more petty, a dire situation get more and more hopeless, and the body count rise. When the quiet tension of the second act threatens to weight the film down with dead air, Kitamura throws in a pair of deranged, third act plot turns that redefine the meaning of road kill. And don’t forget, this is a California highway. It’s hot. And there are vultures. Ewww.
That Kitamura never really gets a handle on dialogue is the film’s most glaring weakness; it’s lumpy and stilted, and never really sounds natural. When the tire first blows, the aimless chatter about changing it, how long it will take, getting back to wherever in time for a birthday party, and whether or not ‘He likes you’ ranks among the most pointless conversations in the history of horror — and those are legion. Sure, it’s a plot device, but it’s irritating nonetheless, and does occasionally take you out of the moment. Anyone who’s ever changed a tire will be wondering what all the faffing around is about. If these Expedition (how do you like that product placement, Ford!) -driving entitleds spent just a few less seconds reaffirming some draconian gender tropes (hey, I never said the movie was perfect) they’d have been on their way before the nutbar in the tree finished his beef jerky.
But Kitamura isn’t interested in rich, human dialogue that illuminates the characters’ inner lives — including those of the silent sniper. He’s interested in carnage. And once the shooter opens fire, boy, does he deliver. Downrange shows off Kitamura’s eye for great camera work (here courtesy of Matthias Schubert) that spins and swirls, leaving viewers as disoriented as the kids on the road. Despite the limitations of the premise, the tension stays high throughout, all the way to the kick-ass conclusion. I take it back: this is indeed B-grade schlock; it’s just schlock that takes a bit of pride in its gutter maliciousness. That’s a compliment.