Man hunting man is a movie trope that is nearly as old as the film industry itself and yet, despite its heavy use, it continues to be an exciting narrative despite its simple premise. There’s just something primal and strangely intimate about two people being locked in a deadly game of hunter and hunted. One could argue that it is the purest and most raw form of good vs. evil and it is that idea that sits at the core of Beyond the Reach, the new thriller from director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti and writer Stephen Susco which is based off the 1972 Robb White novel Deathwatch. The film, which stars Michael Douglas and Jeremy Irvine, relies on slow-burn tension just as much as it does on high-stakes thrills and while it does manage to breathe some new life into the man hunting man genre, its various moving parts sadly don’t come together as cohesively as Leonetti and Susco may have intended.
Beyond the Reach starts up rather serenely but doesn’t waste too much time on exposition. A young tracker named Ben (Irvine) is lamenting his decision to stay in the small town outside of the Mojave Desert where he plies his trade after his highschool sweetheart (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) leaves for college. Fortunately, a job soon comes in to help distract him from his woes: John Madec (Douglas), a smarmy and sarcastic corporate shark who likes to hunt dangerous animals in his spare time. Madec hires Ben to take him out into the Reach, a particularly dangerous part of the Mojave where the intense heat can quickly kill the unprepared, to hunt some Bighorns. When Madec’s itchy trigger finger leads to a case of accidental manslaughter however and Ben refuses to help him cover it up, Madec suddenly finds some much more interesting prey to hunt, namely, Ben.
On paper, this sounds like a pretty good premise for a thriller movie but it’s in the specific details where Beyond the Reach starts to come apart at the seams. The film’s biggest error is in how it presents Madec’s line of reasoning. Madec is supposed to be this quick, intelligent predator who’s used his wits and his smarts to make millions (Leonetti makes sure to include plenty of extra shots showing just how rich Madec is). However, the best plan he can come up with to cover up his crime is to let Ben (who he knows to be a capable tracker and survivalist) wander around the desert and hope he dies from exposure, thus leaving him free to frame Ben for the murder. He doesn’t tip the odds in his favor by doing something like shooting Ben in the leg or forcing him to only wander in a specific area, he just lets Ben run off and follows him from a distance. The really smart thing for Madec to do would be to just kill Ben and then leave since, aside from the local sheriff whom Madec paid off to overlook his lack of a hunter’s license, nobody else knows the two of them are out in the Reach. Of course, such a premise wouldn’t make for a very exciting movie so the chase that isn’t really a chase is on.
To both Leonetti’s and Susco’s credit, they do include plenty of scenes showing off how resourceful Ben is and how his knowledge of the land helps him to stay one step ahead of Madec’s superior resources. Ben’s stamina and fortitude do occasionally stray into the realm of inhuman, most notably during the scenes where Ben, who has wandered around in the sun for hours without any water, is still somehow able to scale sheer cliffs or outrun explosive dynamite blasts, but for the most part it’s only by the skin of his teeth and a heaping helping of luck that he’s able to outfox Madec. It is a little unfortunate that Leonetti felt it necessary to include so many obligatory shots of Ben shirtless and cut like an Olympic athlete (as all young male actors in Hollywood seem to be these days) since it detracts from his image as a heroic everyman and makes it harder to root for him as the film progresses.
Douglas’s Madec meanwhile is just the right mix of out-of-touch corporate sleazebag and conniving sociopath. He’s clearly a man who cares for nothing aside from money but the oddly genuine attempts he makes to connect with Ben in the film’s opening moments and the equally genuine sense of betrayal he feels when Ben tries to report his crime prove that Douglas isn’t interested in playing one-dimensional villains (as his equally masterful portrayal of stock broker Gordon Gecko proved way back in 1986’s Wall Street). There are times when Madec’s behavior veers a little too far into clichéd villain territory (a beautiful panning shot of the Mojave is quickly ruined by Madec’s need to urinate off the side of a ravine) but it’s still quite clear that Douglas had a lot of fun playing him.
Unfortunately, Beyond the Reach’s promising first act and so-so second act are all but completely ruined by a nonsensical third act. There are not one but two very distinct moments where Leonetti and Susco could have ended the film on a solid and enigmatic note but their need to include a final sequence in which everything gets resolved just ends up making the rest of the film feel disconnected and meaningless. The director/writer pair’s desire to not leave the audience guessing is admirable but the way in which they went about it goes completely against the grain of the narrative they spent so long trying to establish in the first place. It’s a sadly classic case of a director and writer not wanting to risk upsetting their audience and grossly over-correcting in the process.
Even with its disappointing ending, Beyond the Reach is still a mostly solid thriller that’s worth seeing if you enjoy the kinds of movies where two equally cunning opponents match odds in a game of life or death. Douglas’s John Madec may not be as devilishly likable as Gordon Gecko but it’s still fun to watch him pursue Irvine’s Ben across the Mojave. The holes in Madec’s logic and the disappointingly out-of-place finale keep Beyond the Reach from greatness but, then again, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.