You might not expect Cinestate — the right-leaning Dallas production company responsible for “Dragged Across Concrete,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” and allegedly enabling a pattern of sexual abuse by producer Adam Donaghey — to create a sensitive and thought-provoking film about America’s epidemic of school shootings, but even if you lowered the bar down to the ninth layer of hell the company’s latest and least defensible effort would still manage to slink under it. An unholy cross between “Elephant” and “Die Hard” that depicts an armed attack on a Texas high school with all the realism of Dana Loesch’s wet dreams, “Run Hide Fight” is a glib, artless, and reprehensibly stupid thriller that doesn’t even have enough on its mind to be provocative. It’s a movie made by someone who’s seen too many movies, and now made at least one too many as well.
Poor Thomas Jane. No one who brought us “The Mist” and that one scene at the end of “Boogie Nights” deserves to be the most recognizable face in a braindead fiasco like this. The man didn’t survive three biogenetically enhanced backwards-swimming super sharks so that he could live to help sell the “good guy with a gun” fallacy from Redbox kiosks in red state gas stations. But everybody’s gotta eat, and Jane’s performance as widower dad Todd Hull sure radiates with some big, checked out “I’m actually thinking about food right now” energy.
We meet the grief-stricken ex-marine early one morning as he takes his 17-year-old daughter Zoe (a steely Isabel May, also worthy of better work and new representation) out buck hunting one morning before school. Texas! When Todd stands over a wounded animal and lectures Zoe about how she has to finish the job, the blonde teen by his side bashes the creature’s head in with a rock before her dad can finish his point. The buck may have been put out of its misery, but ours is just beginning.
It would be bad enough if Zoe were just the main character of a witless exploitation thriller, but it turns out that she’s also stuck inside an embarrassingly trite cancer melodrama and friend-zone rom-com so half-assed you’re almost glad John Hughes isn’t alive to see it. It’s barely even 0800 (Todd speaks in military time) and Zoe has already been caught having a conversation with her mom’s coffee-sipping ghost (Radha Mitchell); somehow, the promise of lattes in heaven doesn’t take the sting out of the mass murder to come.
The carnage is teased before Zoe even gets to school, as she and the shy best friend who’s obviously had a crush on her since they were little kids (Olly Sholotan) spy one of their class’ more notorious outcasts up to some shady business during their morning commute. Sure, even from a distance it kinda looks like the kid is planting fertilizer bombs along the side of the road, but anything goes on senior prank day. Besides, even the most explosive prom-posal can’t match the body count of an average gender-reveal party. “This is high school,” one character sighs. “Nothing that happens here matters in the real world.”
Of course, we know that isn’t true. And writer-director Kyle Rankin (a name that “Project Greenlight” fans might recognize from the carnage left behind by “The Battle of Shaker Heights”) knows that we know that isn’t true. Unlike “If…” or “Masterminds” or “Basketball Diaries,” “Run Hide Fight” exists in direct response to the post-Columbine epidemic of school shootings that continues to plague this country despite Marco Rubio’s most urgent prayers, and anyone with the misfortune of having to sit through Rankin’s movie will already be all too familiar with the tropes that have emerged from these attacks. Call it “triggered” or call it “traumatized,” but the fact remains that viewers are bracing for the inevitable from the moment Zoe and Lewis arrive on campus, and the disgusting series of fake jump scares that Rankin busts out in the build up to the attack (i.e. a surprise prom-posal, a balloon popping loudly as part of a chem lab experiment, etc.) reek of a disingenuousness that only grows stronger during the rest of the film.
It’s reckless to assume the flaws of a movie necessarily reflect the flaws of its primary author, but “Run Hide Fight” can’t go five minutes without Rankin seeming to reveal the unseriousness with which he regards this eminently preventable breed of murder. Each new story beat touches on the problems at hand (guns, bullying, mental health, etc.) only to undermine their urgency and distract from the hard work of solving them.
In stark contrast to the attacks that have come to define this crisis, Zoe’s school is besieged by a four-person team that plows a van into the cafeteria and plants explosives around the building. The first kid we see fits the model, though he’s later revealed to suffer from a case of paranoid schizophrenia so movie-fied it makes “A Beautiful Mind” feel like a direct adaptation of the DSM-V by comparison. The second is a trigger-happy mouth-breather who (spoiler alert!) was roped into this scheme because someone pulled his bathing suit down at a swim party in fifth grade.
Then there’s the leader of the pack, a smooth-talking sociopath whose blazer and hoodie combo make him seem like more of a homicidal H&M ad than the symbol of a horrifying threat that our country now considers just another one of the unavoidable headaches of going to high school — like pop quizzes that no one should ever have to be prepared for. His name is Tristan, he’s basically the “Gossip Girl” version of the terrorist Dennis Hopper played in “Speed” (he even brings his PDA-happy girlfriend along for the ride), and he takes everyone in the cafeteria hostage with a catchphrase so trollishly stupid that Donald Trump Jr. will probably start referencing it with the misplaced enthusiasm of someone who’s just found their new “Boondock Saints.”
You see, Tristan isn’t just another well-armed misanthrope who’s been raised on 4chan and wants to start shitposting in the real world — he’s not just in it for the body count. On the contrary, he’s trying to send a message. The particulars of that message are unclear (something about cancel culture, and offering to serve as executioner in a society where everyone has already cast themselves as judge and jury), but he’s definitely got one, and it involves forcing the hostages to live-stream the massacre until the news networks start covering the story with an O.J. Simpson-worthy breathlessness.
In other words, Tristan wants ratings, and if you’re gracious enough to assume that Rankin has put any thought whatsoever into the logistical and/or political implications of such a media stunt, I can only remind you that “think” isn’t part of the “Run Hide Fight” agenda. At one point Tristan promises the viewers at home a climactic “plot twist” that no one has ever seen before, which turns out to be 1. Not a plot twist, and 2. Something you’ve definitely seen before.
Rankin is uninterested in gun fetishism, white nationalism, YouTube radicalism, or any of the other clear and present dangers that dangle over America’s classrooms like a scythe — and he sure as hell isn’t interested in starting “a conversation.” If the willful obliviousness of his movie’s relationship to the real world implicitly aligns it with Republican ideology, Rankin’s only legible goal is to imagine what John McClane’s daughter might do if some pubescent terrorists took over her school. The brunt of “Run Hide Fight” follows Zoe as she uses her hyper-militarized upbringing to fight back, lead the hostages, and take down the shooters one-by-one in a series of clumsily orchestrated standoffs that feel like they should end with Zoe dropping Alan Rickman off the roof of the school wood shop (her final confrontation with Tristan is no less ridiculous).
Whenever our heroine is at risk of losing her nerve, her dead mom shows up with some caffeinated encouragement. Deranged as that detail can feel, it’s the only aspect of “Run Hide Fight” that isn’t hackneyed within an inch of its life — even if only on account of its strangeness. By the time Treat Williams shows up as a hostage negotiator who calls Tristan and distracts him with action-thriller cliches (Treat Williams is obviously in this movie, by the way), it’s hard to say what’s more offensive: That Rankin is pissing into an overflowing reservoir of national pain, or that he’s doing it so poorly. Just kidding, it’s not hard at all. Generations of parents have baselessly worried that irresponsible movies could inspire school shootings. Now that our country seems to have accepted such massacres as a fact of American life, “Run Hide Fight” suggests it might be more productive for parents to worry that school shootings will inspire irresponsible movies. At least there’s actual proof of that.
“Run Hide Fight” premiered Out of Competition at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.