A young city cop has a helluva first 24 hours riding the High Country in modern-day Oz splatter Western “Red Hill,” but not many international auds may like saddling up alongside him. Much-anticipated first feature by TV commercials/short-film director Patrick Hughes — whose charming 12-minute romance, “Signs,” has recorded a colossal 4 million hits on YouTube — is, alas, as short on originality and sustained tension as it is long on striking widescreen vistas and impressive technical smarts. Pic looks likely to get Hughes’ name out there via the fest circuit but not notch up many theatrical hits, at least beyond Down Under.
Made without subsidy coin, and entirely shot using short ends from Hollywood productions like “Fast and Furious,” Hughes’ Magimix tribute to helmers such as George Miller, Robert Rodriguez and the Coen brothers lacks nothing in technical expertise — even more amazing considering that it was all shot on location in only three weeks. However, his script is so generic and has so little personal flavor that the result is more like a “Halloween” movie in small-town Australia.
Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), who’s just arrived in remote Red Hill the night before, rises for his first day’s duty to discover a one-street community of taciturn, stick-in-the-mud locals. His ornery boss, Inspector William “Old Bill” Jones (Robert Altman lookalike Steve Bisley), is suspicious of the big-city transferee, and other colleagues, like Manning (Richard Sutherland), hardly give him the time of day.
Turns out Shane requested to be transferred as his heavily pregnant wife, Alice (Claire van der Boom), needs a stress-free environment in order not to miscarry again. But beneath his friendly, boyish front, Cooper himself also has problems — and stress-free is hardly the adjective to apply to Red Hill.
In short order, news comes of an explosion at a maximum-security prison in the state capital and convicted wife murderer Dural “Jimmy” Conway (Tom E. Lewis), an expert tracker of Aboriginal descent, is on the loose. Old Bill, the cop who put him away a decade earlier, reckons Jimmy is headed their way for payback and “will be bringing hell with him.” He tells a quickly assembled posse of snarling locals they have two hours to lock the town down.
This first half-hour skillfully stakes out the ground like a high-end genre movie, stressing the isolation of Red Hill in Victoria state’s semi-Alpine region. Hughes, in partnership with d.p. Tim Hudson, who shot a couple of his shorts, takes his time, with nicely composed visuals, slow tracking shots and unhurried cutting.
The action gets under way late that afternoon, as Jimmy pops up with a pump gun. Seemingly indestructible, and with a knack for appearing where he’s least expected, this facially scarred Aboriginal Jason strangely spares Shane’s life on a couple of occasions — for reasons explained in desaturated flashbacks.
The film’s main problem — aside from its paper-thin plot and lack of any real psychology — is that Hughes doesn’t adjust his style once the action clicks in. Only an hour in is there any sense of growing drama or tension, and even then the pacing remains sober when auds are restless for payback for their patience.
This leaves time for viewers to contemplate such nagging questions as, where have the rest of the townsfolk have disappeared to? Absence of self-deprecating humor also takes the bite out of the movie references that pepper the pic — to Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (with the score belatedly slipping into Ennio Morricone mode) and any number of Stateside splatter movies.
Performances are OK within the script’s limitations. Bisley gets the meatiest role and Kwanten is serviceable as the well-meaning newbie. Score by Dmitri Golovko packs little punch when it’s needed and doesn’t come close to matching Hudson’s lensing.