Downrange is the latest step in Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura’s gradual move into the US market. Kitamura follows in the footsteps of luminaries of Asian cinema like Tsui Hark and John Woo, who were also set out to toil in minor films, but Kitamura never aspired to their artistry. That may be to his benefit in Downrange, because instead of a try-hard wannabe blockbuster, Kitamura plays to his strengths, making a nasty, gory, little low-budget sniper thriller that largely achieves its limited goals.
Kitamura blasted out of the gate in 2000 with the somewhat-overpraised indie Versus, a zombie/gangster/action hybrid (think Evil Dead mixed with yakuza) that launched the career of Japan’s self-proclaimed greatest action star, Tak Sakaguchi. The “throw everything at the wall” aesthetic of Versus led to more big budget projects, like teen girl assassin period piece Azumi, and the ne plus ultra of ludicrously overstuffed kaiju films, Godzilla: Final Wars, which is gloriously awful (featuring the crappy Matthew Broderick ‘Zilla being dispatched easily by the real thing) and a favorite in our house .
Here Kitamura is back in low-budget territory, but aside from the casting you’d hardly know it. Kitamura’s style has gotten significantly more polished over the years, and the film is lensed impeccably by veteran Matthias Schubert. And it’s a good thing, because Downrange is what television would call a bottle episode, largely confined to a small stretch of valley where a murderous sniper traps a group of young folks on their way from school and begins picking them off one by one.
Kitamura drops the viewers right into the thick of it, immediately locating the action as the sniper blows out a tire on the kids’ car, establishing the essential geography, and allowing personality to come out through reactions to the situation. Kitamura smartly contrasts the mounting horror of the kids’ predicament with the bright, sunny, peaceful environs, and generates stress from the start with an emphasis on odd camera angles.
And when things go bad, they go very bad. Kitamura has in no way lost his taste for extreme gore, and is absolutely ruthless with his cast. But smartly, rather than focus solely on horror, Kitamura turns the film into a cat-and-mouse game between the sniper and the survivors, setting up a series of problem-solving dilemmas that keep the quiet moments interesting.
The film is unquestionably limited by its cast, who are generally competent but largely “Friday the 13th” caliber. They do okay as a likable, pretty, diverse group of kids that you want to see survive, but no one stands out, leaving a bit of a gap at the center which is particularly problematic in the absence of a charismatic villain.
Despite that serious flaw, and Kitamura’s occasional failure to reign in his own worst impulses, Downrange works for what it is, and is especially effective and timely in these days of constant mass shootings. And unlike many Kitamura films, it’s a tight 90 minutes, instead of a bloated rubber-suited monstrosity.
2 1/2 out of 4 stars (Good). Downrange will be running exclusively on Shudder starting Thursday, April 26. Downrange will also be opening this weekend at NYC’s Nitehawk Cinema, with Ryuhai Kitamura in attendance.