New Releases: Range Runners (2020)-Reviewed

Distance running might be the toughest sport because it’s so easy to hit that wall and convince yourself to keep going. You have to be willing to meet that barrier, crash through it and keep on running. Those barriers, both physical and mental are at the heart of Philip S. Plowden’s survival thriller Range Runners. 

We open on young distance runner Mel (Mariah Gordon) being coached by her drill instructor-like father (Carl Clemons-Hopkins). She’s in pain and stresses that she can’t go any further today. Her father reprimands her and gives her the first of the film’s many pep talks, his mission to instill a “never give up” attitude into her. As she steadies herself and begins moving again, we flash forward to the present. Here, an adult Mel (Celeste M. Cooper) is hiking an isolated trail. Armed with only a backpack filled with the things she’ll need to rough it, she’s on an unspecified personal mission through the wilderness. Unfortunately for her, despite being prepared for whatever nature has to offer, danger lurks within these woods. Two shady men with a shadier agenda will soon make Mel’s passion for running the key to her survival. 

This is a survival thriller that hits every beat that this kind of film is expected to hit, but there’s an emotional center, anchored by Cooper’s performance that sucks you in almost immediately. She makes you want to know why she’s running, why she’s pushing herself so hard, why her anger is so palpable. She’s an exceptionally compelling screen presence and is the key to the entire film. You feel every bit of anguish, horror, frustration and relief on her face. Being asked to carry a film on your own is one thing. To do it in ostensibly your first role (her only other feature credit is a minor role in Chi-Raq) is another and like the role she’s playing, Cooper soars over that barrier. She’s quietly expressive but gives way to explosive volatility that commands your attention from the outset. 

For their part, Plowden and co-writer Devon Colwell realize that it’s not enough to have Cooper run for her life for 100 minutes. Structuring the film so that every flashback to her father coincides with the latest bout of survival, they provide insight to a character that could be a blank slate on its surface. Flashbacks can be an easy way to provide exposition but you never feel that here. Delivering an equally strong performance as the father, Clemons-Hopkins makes every flashback a dynamite sequence of fury and inspiration. As Mel fights with demons in her present, taking the form of two violent men, the demons of her past keep bubbling up to propel her ever forward. 

Plowden’s direction is pertinent to never feeling the exposition dumps as his camera frames Mel’s  father as a towering presence, looming over her in the past so that you feel his weight in the present. Plowden and cinematographer, Darryl Miller are both such assured hands. This is a gorgeous film filled with lush imagery, immersing you into Mel’s nightmare hike.  A particularly surreal scene around the middle where Mel fights with a vision of her sister is a standout, lifting the film above typical genre fare. For her part, Cooper is again, stunning in this moment. Acting the scene out in fits of spoken dialogue and voiceover, it’s a tremendous moment. 

Not so tremendous are the villains, maybe the biggest thing holding Range Runners back from being truly remarkable. Sean Patrick Leonard and Michael B. Woods are about as vanilla as it gets playing the heavy and cowardly twerp respectively. Woods is mostly fine and the film does its part to try to paint him as a reluctant attacker, in over his head but it’s such a muted performance that it never really connects. Leonard is the real problem here. Clearly relishing the chance to eat scenery as the big bad, he’s woefully out of place. In an otherwise soulful exploration into survival and fighting trauma both past and present, you need a villain that’s going to match the tone. Leonard just isn’t that, opting instead for a more cartoonish approach. He’s never threatening and it’s a real shame, depriving an otherwise very good film of the much needed ingredient it needs to be great. 

Thankfully, our star’s work in front of the camera, and director’s work behind it, more than make up for that. Range Runners will win no prizes for originality but what really can at this point? It’s a solid thriller, investing its viewers in an emotional journey while fighting its way to a wonderfully violent and cathartic conclusion. Cooper and Plowden are both talents to keep your eye on going forward but you’ll want to be there on the ground floor for their terrific opening opening salvo.

-Brandon Streussnig 

Range Runners is available rent or buy on VOD.