Downrange: Weapon Malfunction, by Chase Beck
In Downrange, a vanload of college-age individuals is sharing a ride through the bucolic California oak savanna when one of the car’s tires suddenly goes flat. The group piles out of the car and the men take charge changing the tire to help get them back on their way. However, before they complete their task, they discover a bullet in the flat tire and soon, are under fire from a hidden assailant. Downrange has a simple, and not altogether original, horror setup. It is a film that would be easily dismissed were it not for the involvement of its director, Ryûhei Kitamura.
Kitamura has had a series of hits including Versus, a zombie action film involving sword fighting, gunplay, martial arts, Yakuza, and a portal to darkness. If that sounds overstuffed, Kitamura also directed Godzilla: Final Wars, a kaiju film that features the big, green nuclear weapons metaphor taking on nearly every single enemy he previously faced, including a facsimile of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version. Oh yeah, and there are aliens and mutants too. Perhaps Ryûhei Kitamura’s greatest success, and most well-known film, is The Midnight Meat Train a fun, horror adaptation of a Clive Barker story that pit’s Bradley Cooper against a centuries-old, murderous subway butcher played with silent menace by Vinnie Jones. It is The Midnight Meat Train’s quiet, thoughtful pacing punctuated by sudden acts of violence as well as its look and slight nod to the supernatural that made it stand out to me and also part of the reason I wanted to see Kitamura’s most recent film, Downrange. The Midnight Meat Train is Kitamura at his subdued best.
Downrange gets credit for diving straight into the action and for having an 85 minute runtime. This limit keeps the pace light and quick. Moments of tension are quickly punctuated by action beats and, although our protagonists are left for hours to bake in the sun, the audience gets to skip through the tedium and experience only the most suspenseful and action-packed set-pieces. Kitamura also takes the time to intersperse the story with shots of nature, wasps lapping up the blood from a head wound, for instance.
Unfortunately, Downrange is a decent story marred by nearly every other aspect of the film. Ryûhei Kitamura has always been a filmmaker given to excess. This is best exhibited in Downrange by an excess of blood and gore. Bullet wounds, and there are many, are graphically grisly and spout a seemingly unrealistic amount of blood. However, gory horror films seem to be de rigueur these days. It would be easily excusable and perhaps overlooked if this were my only complaint about the film. Sadly, Downrange lacks the slick polish of something like Midnight Meat Train. This is likely due to a lower budget. The acting is also sub-par which could be another effect of lack of funds. As a result, lines are often poorly delivered and emotions can be either unrealistically over-played or strangely pulled back. The dialogue also seems slightly choppy and staid. I eventually got used to it. Thankfully, the pacing of the film is so spot on that I got swept-up in the story and the plight of our main characters.
Throughout the film, it is exciting to imagine how the pinned down party members will MacGyver their way out of their predicaments. However, nearly every solution they come up with left me disappointed and wondering at the actual effectiveness of such tactics. For example, “can a simple cigarette lighter heat the head of a hammer to a temperature high enough to cauterize a wound?” You can bet I am going to be doing some research and running experiments on this one.
The resolution of the film is marred by a slightly modified deus ex machina and the fact that the antagonist fails to live up to the menace provided earlier in the film. It is difficult to tell if Ryûhei’s writing partner, Joey O’Bryan, should be congratulated for the best parts of the story or called out for the worst. So I’m left to assign blame and praise to the both of them. Perhaps my greatest gripe is that the sniper’s shots are at times incredibly accurate and at other times bafflingly off the mark. Because he attacks from afar, it is difficult to tell if he is playing with his victims or simply frustrated at his inability to end the assault quickly. Also, no time is spent on the assailant’s motivations or backstory. He is as much a mystery at the end of the film as he is in the beginning. Has he done this before? Would he do this again? What made him snap? These are questions that neither Ryûhei Kitamura nor Joey O’Bryan are interested in addressing but feel, to me at least, important ones to the story of the film.
That having been said, with its protagonists under assault in a single location, the film does remind me of a lesser version of Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. So, if you are tired of watching that, you could do a lot worse than Downrange. Finally, I saw some of the flashes of brilliance I enjoyed in Midnight Meat Train here as well, making Downrange a delightful, if expendable, horror film.