Before we talk about the indie film Target Practice, I first want to recall a big-budget action picture from this past summer called The Expendables. The Expendables had a great deal going for it: major studio backing; every big-name action star of the last 30 years; several A-list actors in major roles; a multi-million dollar budget; and a huge marketing campaign. So why was the movie so flat? Perhaps because the actors were sleepwalking through their roles. Or perhaps because the film used so many clichés it was predictable from the opening scene. Or maybe I was just tired of watching overpaid actors portraying cardboard cutout characters bumbling through a lame plot while huge explosions try to pull my attention away from all the flaws in the film.
Enter director Rich Reidel and his debut feature film Target Practice. One camera, a handful of dedicated actors, strong writing, and almost no money. And yet Target Practice is easily the grittiest and most intense action film of the last decade, far superior than the dreck that Hollywood churns out year after year.
The set-up is simple: five friends take off into some rugged mountains on a weekend fishing trip only to stumble into the middle of an Al Qaeda-backed terrorist training camp. While two of the friends are killed outright, the others scatter into the woods, desperately trying to figure out how to escape as the terrorists track them and use them as "target practice." Along the way, director Reidel manages to avoid the clichés and singlehandedly turns the action genre on its ear.
The film starts off like many adventure stories begin, with a group of friends entering the wilderness. Reidel does a nice job of showing the forbidding wilderness in several beautiful, sweeping shots, much like in Wrong Turn and The Descent. I was reminded of these two films by the opening of Target Practice and was a bit worried Reidel’s film might be a rip-off of these others. I was further concerned as I watched the opening scenes as these "friends" badmouthed each other and argued hatefully with one another. I feared I would be subjected to 90 minutes of negative, crude and rude dialogue by characters I couldn’t connect with. But I was wrong. Reidel deftly manipulates the audience into making judgments about each character before the first brief but violent flash of action that sends the survivors into the woods as they attempt to escape their unknown assailants. Everything you know about action movies is turned upside down in the first 10 minutes or so of Target Practice.
Instead of the typical good guy winning out, the most hateful characters survive the first attack. Reidel then places each character into a situation that forces them to either change and grow or remain the same and possibly die. For instance, the racist ends up with an African-American undercover CIA agent. This character must choose to either learn to trust someone he inherently hates or to strike out on his own. Two other characters obviously hate each other, but in a wonderful character arc, they not only learn to work together, but also to support each other and even respect each other.
While the story is strong as are the character arcs, the action is gritty, violent, and intense. Using only one camera and literally dozens of takes for each scene, Reidel has constructed an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat thriller that looks as if several cameras were used for filming. The acting is uniformly excellent and the score fits well with the film. The camera work is handheld and intentionally shaky, but not in the headache-inducing way that Blair Witch or Cloverfield is shaky. The camera is used almost like an extra, silent character who is watching the action unfold. Reidel is expert as he swings the camera wildly at small noises in the woods and zooms in almost uncontrollably when a character desperately peers through the branches at some undistinguishable shape. Is it friend or foe? Rescuer or killer? It is a wonderfully paranoid performance by the camera as well as by the characters.
Through all of this, one can’t help but wonder how many of these tiny terrorist cells funded by extremists are hiding out in the American wilderness. The strength of this story is that it isn’t just credible, but absolutely true–we know there are militant factions training in the most rugged places in America, just waiting for their chance to prove their obedience and loyalty. Could someone accidentally run afoul of one of these groups while hiking, camping, fishing? The reality of the story makes the film even scarier.
Reidel has made an absolutely terrific first feature, as evidenced by the numerous awards the film has been nominated for or won (over 20 at last count). The film has been released by Big Screen Entertainment Group and comes packed with special features such as cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes, and audio commentary. For more information please check out www.bigscreenent.com or www.targetpracticethemovie.com. You won’t be sorry!