The latest from Japanese horror schlockmeister Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train) makes a tedious mess out of its stripped-down, gory premise.
On a lonely stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, a tire blows out, stranding six twentysomethings by the roadside in an isolated stretch of California desert. The kids get out to change their tire, take selfies, and figure out how far it is to the next town. However, they’re not the only ones out there: within minutes, two of them are dead at the hands of a mysterious, unseen sniper firing at them from the other side of the road. Luckily, the remaining youngsters quickly determine that the other side of the van means safety – his well-aimed bullets can’t penetrate all the way through to the other side.
With these chess pieces in place, Downrange begins – a high-concept thriller that unevenly juggles Japanese goremaster Ryuhei Kitamura’s lust for over the top guts and grime with characters we couldn’t care a whit about.
The director of Versus and Midnight Meat Train is certainly experienced in the kind of bloody mayhem that makes films like Downrange work in a crowded midnight theater, and some of that craft is on display here to be sure. Cinematographer Matthias Schubert seems more than game for Kitamura’s sense of low-budget kineticism, establishing the spatial relations between the sniper and our trapped heroes amongst the wheat-colored countryside of the film’s setting. There’s only so much you can do to visually spice up such a sparse setup, and they manage to accomplish that in fits and starts.
All the visual flair in the world, however, can’t make up for one of the most unlikable, uncharismatic cadres of horror protagonists in years. Before the group catches wise to the sniper, the film wastes precious minutes attempting to ingratiate us to this group of whiny selfie-takers. But whether through the cast’s inexperience or Kitamura’s unfamiliarity with directing English-language actors, our six meat-shields contribute to a collection of wooden, cringeworthy performances that fails to convince us they’re even human, much less deserving of survival. Joey O’Bryan’s tacky dialogue doesn’t do them any favors, the cast saddled with creaky monologues about their pasts or faux-cool quips that sound like something out of the 90s.
Of the limited cast, the only two standouts are Rod Hernandez’s Todd, who does the best of anyone to actually convey some sense of charisma, and Stephanie Pearson’s inexplicably resourceful Keren – “Army brat, hunting family. I grew up around guns,” she says, before suddenly becoming the chief strategist for the team. While Keren’s secret Jack Bauer skill set comes eye-rollingly out of nowhere (she’s real quick to cauterize a wound with a lighter and a hammer), at least it gives the kids something to do while we wait for them to get picked off, one at a time.
And wait we do; despite the lean ninety-minute runtime, Downrange can’t quite figure out enough variations on their cat-and-mouse situation to keep the final two acts from devolving into a boring slog. Doug Liman’s 2016 military thriller The Wall offers a similar premise to Downrange – a single-location thriller featuring a soldier pinned down by a deadly, omniscient sniper – but its execution is smarter, and it actually uses the concept to symbolize the character’s inner torments.
Downrange’s ambitions are certainly smaller, and there’s nothing about the situation these kids are put in that allows them to grow or change as people. They’re just target practice, cannon fodder just waiting to get picked off so the audience can guffaw at Kitamura’s patently overwrought gore effects.
Speaking of gore – the film’s few delights come when Kitamura’s Grand Guignol instincts kick in, and he gets to revel in the squishy, snappy body horror that made his previous movies perfect horror fare. Apparently, the sniper’s bullets are made of some property that makes its victims virtually explode on impact; whenever a shot connects, it blows through someone’s skull with all the force of a Howitzer, splattering Spaghetti-O brains all over the pavement.
Those moments of grindhouse splatter are always welcome, but without a compelling context it just makes Downrange look like an elevated FX reel. Sure, it’s gasp-inducing when someone accidentally shoots themselves in the throat and we see the hole she tries to breathe through… but I hated them from the beginning, so who cares?
To be fair, there’s a midnight movie appeal to Downrange, the kind of low-stakes thrill ride that might make for a half-remembered installment in a horror movie marathon. Unfortunately, whatever novelty its premise might instill in the audience is undermined by the fact that it’s virtually impossible to care about those trapped in the sniper’s crosshairs. By the time the third act rolls along with more characters and explosions entering the fray, it feels like too little, too late.
If you’re not using the minimalism of your setting inventively enough, or elevating it with compelling characters, it just feels like an empty, repetitive exercise. In this respect, Downrange takes aim at grindhouse giggles, but misses the mark.