Ah, the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood premiere: a constellation of stars shining in the Angeleno night, everyone dressed to the nines for handshakes, back-slaps, photo ops, popped corks, and a few pro forma speeches about how hard they all worked. The human @-replies running far-right opinion web site The Daily Wire staged a grotesque parody of just that this past Thursday night, a Price-Rite curtain-raiser fueled by an entirely different strain of self-aggrandizement than usually found among Tinseltown types. The power producers and A-list actors had been replaced by noted rap music understander Ben Shapiro and a man literally named Jeremy Boreing, joined by writer-director Kyle Rankin and a few simpatico-minded pals. The red carpet had been replaced by an anonymous room unwittingly decorated to resemble the set of showbiz-circuit satire On Cinema at the Cinema. And for those of us at home watching online out of a perverse curiosity, the charge of excitement in the air had been replaced by a lurching, ambient dread.
The leading lights of the conservative fringe had come together to commemorate the long-awaited (by someone, somewhere, surely) debut of Run Hide Fight, the first major motion picture to be distributed through the Daily Wire’s new movie division. They came to acquire the title after its previous owner, the feather-ruffling mini-studio Cinestate, collapsed following the accusation that one of its key coproducers had raped a 16-year-old girl while other higher-ups turned a blind eye. The completed film had trouble finding a new home in part due to a logline — “Think Die Hard, with John McClane as a seventeen-year-old girl, and Nakatomi Plaza as a high school besieged by student shooters” — too instantly alienating for a business predicated on mass appeal. Though as the hosts of the live-streamed pre-show told it, that’s more like a cover.
Shapiro, looking more like an oversized ventriloquist dummy than usual in his crisply pressed tux, used the evening’s platform to rail against the dearth of conservative-friendly entertainment in the lefty Sodom that is the American film industry. Never mind that that particular value set has found audible voices at the multiplex in both prestige (Clint Eastwood) and popcorn (Peter Berg, Michael Bay, take your pick of macho-man blockbuster directors) modes. As Shapiro repeated ad nauseam, in between asking viewers to pitch a few bucks to the Daily Wire coffers and whingeing about journalists criticizing his Politico column earlier that week, the scourge of liberalism and the clandestine networks dedicated to upholding it are scared of the truth. A banner superimposed at the bottom of the screen made the stakes of this film’s success clear as could be: “TAKE BACK THE CULTURE,” it declared, along with a link for subscription to a paid membership to the Daily Wire.
A triumph for partisan messaging isn’t what producer Dallas Sonnier had in mind when putting the film together, however. The loud-and-proud neocon foreplay that preceded the showing of Run Hide Fight clashes harshly with the avowed apolitical stance the film’s creators had intended for it. In interviews, Cinestate (now rebranded as Bonfire Legends) founder Sonnier has self-identified as a “libertarian-leaning” without much interest in the two-party system, passionate about firearm ownership and little else. Both of Sonnier’s parents were shot to death in separate incidents, which somewhat re-contextualizes the fetish for violent gunplay in his output. All the same, he envisioned his company’s latest feature as a broadside against the sort of tragedy it recreates in elaborate detail. “I hate that this is the state of affairs for our kids,” he said of America’s school-shooting epidemic in an article published by The Ringer</at. “It’s fucking miserable and I want to fix it. I’m not a politician, so I can’t change the laws, but I can change some hearts and minds through movies, through our art, and through our company.”
The unavoidably exploitative content vs. that emphatically stated respect constitutes the most glaring internal contradiction in a film full of them. For starters, Run Hide Fight‘s heroine Zoe (Isabel May) is introduced as losing touch with her humanity, giving a look that her dad (Thomas Jane) remembers seeing on his buddies from the war, and her emotional arc sees her find the quality of mercy within herself. The seeming importance of this dignified transformation doesn’t quite square with the lovingly aestheticized counteroffensive she takes against her rogue classmates for the preceding hour. When we’re made to watch as she blows one of their heads off at point blank range, it’s the cathartic climax of a close-combat showdown, nothing mournful about it.
There’s the hypocrisy of a script that spends more time with the ringleader of the assault (Eli Brown, doing his best Heath Ledger Joker) than the girl scrambling to take him down, and then gives her a monologue about how the narcissism of his dark deeds will be for naught when posterity remembers her instead of him. Except that by this point, he has made a far more memorable impression on the audience, his endless monologuing commanding the camera’s attention to an extent Zoe’s stealthy creeping around the school doesn’t. Even the film’s central conceit, the old NRA adage that the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, gets complicated by the rank incompetence of the cops on the scene. Rankin and Sonnier would rather celebrate the individualist spirit of drastic-measure-taking lone wolves, like Zoe or her veteran dad, who totes his sniper rifle to the school’s campus and tries to pick off the attackers through the odd window.
The purported great white hope of “own the libs” cinema is all but defined by its own ideological incoherence, so much so that it can work both ways. There’s enough vagueness for Sonnier and his crew to claim plausible deniability about a side-taking agenda — some personnel have asked if they can have their name scrubbed from the credits, now that it has the stink of the Daily Wire all over it — with enough mud slung at favored Republican targets that the right can embrace it as their own. The many proposed causes of this trench coat mafia’s killing spree align closely with the usual suspects of far right media outlets, starting with the insidious mind-warping influence of social media. The regular media doesn’t come off looking all that better, swarming around the locked-down school and feeding the vainglorious shooter’s ego.
The whole incident takes on a nasty sociological tinge when Zoe captures one of the junior gunmen and he starts moaning about the pain everyone else at school has inflicted on him. Less than sympathetic, Zoe tells him that being bullied doesn’t compare to the shit other kids have to go through, and that he should have sucked it up and gotten through life like everyone else. She stops just short of calling him a snowflake, though the head shooter does announce his first kill with a smugly delivered “trigger warning!” The notion that we’ve all gotten a bit too mollycoddled also extends to the gun-shy namby-pambies wasting time talking and formulating plans while men of action (or rather, teen girls of action) spring into motion.
Rankin’s direction is shallow and his provocations are weak, making a tedious chore out of what was sold as a thriller guaranteed to push buttons and pound pulses. Throughout Zoe’s daring mission, she’s given sage counsel from the spirit of her dead mom, a writerly device almost as egregious as the many ironic gotchas faking us out with joke-danger in the first act before the real bloodbath starts. Never have I so appreciated the elegant pacing and dialogue of filmmaker S. Craig Zahler, who pitches his Cinestate projects at this faintly reactionary register with far greater skill. But more than being a garden-variety bad movie, on top of offering young people the lethal misconception that they’d do well to strike back in an active shooter situation, Run Hide Fight gives the worst kind of cynic an in.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevassse) is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vox, and plenty of other semi-reputable publications. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.