Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 25, 2011 6:28 pm 
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Into the wild: a zero-budget actioner with zing

In this tense ultra-indie actioner, five blue collar pals on the way to fish in the southern California mountains stop to check an abandoned jeep and find themselves under attack by a terrorist training cell. Two of the men are shot. Three survive and take refuge in the hills. There, things get complicated. Richmond Riedel, an experienced editor who wrote, directed, and shot the movie, does a smart job of juggling character development, political themes, and pure action and his actors, who had to play both cast and crew, provide committed performances. Riedel & Co., including effective understated music by Jeff Arwady and Henry Ward, deliver the goods. But remember, the goods are cut-rate. This is a no-budget production, and while the action is non-stop and full of twists and turns, there's no glamour or polish here, sometimes the dialogue falters, and the one-camera vision may seem obtrusive. But the camera is also an eye that uses POV skillfully to create tension, a sense of ever-present danger on the periphery. And crudity can convey a sense of realism. Target Practice has had many action film nominations and done well at small fests. Too bad it will be seen mostly on DVD, because this is a flick that could be very strong on the big screen.

Making this kind of movie in the wilds is practical for pared-down filmmaking. No need for sets or permits. The locations were not that far from LA. But it's not easy for anybody concerned. You can feel the actual hardship the cast was going through as an element of the strung-out extremists and the exhaustion and adrenaline of the surviving would-be fishermen.

You can tell Riedel is an editor, because the whole film is conceived in terms of scenes that rapidly alternate and neatly interlock. He also sticks close to the classic action playbook. Though flashbacks to the five men's departures (not so effective) swiftly sketch in their home lives, the intro consists merely of claustrophobic bickering in the SUV en route, and the violent action starts with a bang ten minutes in, and does not stop. Riedel quickly separates his narrative into two units. Mark (Eric Dean) is paired with the wounded Steve (Aaron Hawk), with the seemingly whiny and weak Mark surprising Steve by taking charge. The bigoted and mean Paul (Joey Lanai) is on his own, but is soon forced to work with a black CIA undercover agent (Solomon Hoilett) who had infiltrated the terror cell. A third element is the cell, which may have as many as 20 members somewhere in the woods hunting down the interlopers.

So there you have a Deliverance-style situation with political overtones of a post-9/11 hate-filled world and a few men trying to survive in an unfamiliar environment that their enemies know "like the palm of their hand." Gradually more of the militants appear helpfully wearing camouflage T-shirts but seeming at war among themselves. Casualties and tense stand-offs multiply. By alternating between Mark and Steve on the one hand and Paul and the agent on the other with the terrorists coming in and out from unknown locations, Riedel keeps the action fast and unpredictable and the scenes changing with a steady fast rhythm. His camera often seems like the eyes of one of the fearful, trapped men, darting about and surveying shapes moving behind trees, shifting position and focus nervously. Riedel sticks to his action commitment, providing a final OK Corral shootout worthy of a classic Western, only with automatic weapons replacing six-shooters, and adding an ironic coda George Romero might approve.

Target Practice hardly needs my praise. Veteran critic Robert Koehler provided Variety's imprimatur in a rave review in 2008 descriing the movie as "engineered with confidence and exceptionally skillful editing" and suggesting that "financially strapped American filmmakers would be wise to study 'Target Practice' for what can be done with minimal crew and cash."

Most of the casting works very well, including all the extras who make up the 20 militants. Daniel Rosenberg is particularly lean and scary and vaguely Middle Eastern as the cell leader, Ghazi. Among the leads Eric Dean, Riedel's starting point in casting the film, stands out. Also fine is Ettony Williams as a CIA agent. Two reservations are that Eric Lanai becomes too soft and appealing for his initially racist character and Hawk is excessively energetic for a guy with a hole in him. Though the movie manages to avoid excessive gore there's a lot of spurting blood and it does look fake. But the action has zing and so does the whole production. Koehler wasn't wrong. This is an intense, compelling watch.

Target Practice (97min), which did well on the indie film festival circuit, has been released by Big Screen Entertainment and is available on DVD or for download, in the US including Netflix. Bonus materials on the DVD are worth the price of admission for all the insights they provide into making a successful action film on limited budget. Interviews with director, actors, and crew convey vivid memories of tough-but-fun "guerrilla" filmmaking plus lots of informative commentary by Riedel with his lead actors about editing of scenes and clever ways to compensate for budgetary limitations. One place where Riedel explains he didn't cut corners is that because he used a single camera but wanted good "coverage" (a variety of camera angles during scenes) he did many takes -- hard on the cast but good for the final cut. With Riedel's articulate commentary Target Practice becomes even more instructive for aspiring low-budget filmmakers -- as Robert Koehler suggested. For that matter, it's recommended for anyone who wants a nitty-gritty lesson on how action films are made.

┬ęChris Knipp 2011



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