Judging by Michael Douglas’ presence as producer and star, “The Reach” must have been some sort of passion project for the aging Hollywood icon. Well, as Pascal observed, the heart has its reasons — which, in Douglas’ case, remain impenetrable at the end of “The Reach,” a preposterously bad, grade-Z adventure yarn in which a crazed billionaire hunter chases a skivvy-stripped guide through the Mojave Desert for upwards of 90 minutes, while the audience looks on in quiet disbelief. A hopelessly misguided mash-up of Cornel Wilde’s 1955 cult favorite “The Naked Prey” and “The Most Dangerous Game,” with Douglas playing a mutant hybrid of Gordon Gekko and the Glenn Close character from “Fatal Attraction,” this inauspicious English-language debut for promising French helmer Jean-Baptiste Leonetti doesn’t look to reach far from its Toronto premiere (where Lionsgate paid a surprising $2 million for the U.S. rights).
If there were a festival prize for most Chekhovian use of a handgun, it would surely go to “The Reach” for the early scene in which small-town deputy Ben (Jeremy Irvine) and his girlfriend, Laina (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), exchange parting gifts as she heads off to college in the mythical big city. When she gifts him with a necklace her grandfather made for her, he returns the sentimental gesture by giving her a pistol. (Note that this is not the last we’ll see of it.) Ben, an orphan with a tragic past that seems to have held him back in life, is soon enlisted by Douglas’ Madec, “some kind of big shot” (per the local sheriff, “Deliverance” co-star Ronny Cox) who’s rolled into town to add a bighorn sheep to his trophy case.
A self-styled dandy of a big-game hunter, with a high-tech Austrian-made rifle and a souped-up Mercedes SUV (retail price: $500K), Madec isn’t so much a character as a cartoon caricature of one-half-of-one-percent privilege run amok. And before our hunting party has even set off on their journey, you’re itching for Madec to get his comeuppance. Well, it proves a long and unfulfilling wait in Stephen Susco’s torturously protracted screenplay (adapted from a 1972 novel by frequent William Castle scribe Robb White, itself previously filmed as the MOW “Savages” in 1974), which hinges on Madec’s accidental shooting of a grizzled old desert coot and his subsequent efforts to wash his hands of it, lest a messy police investigation foul up his pending business deal with Chinese investors. When honest injun Ben insists on calling for help, Madec uses the guide’s own gun to finish off his badly wounded victim. And when he sees that no amount of bribe money will buy Ben’s complicity, Madec decides he might as well finish him off too — by making him run naked through the blistering heat until he dies of exposure.
Plausible human behavior rarely intrudes upon this far-fetched affair, as Ben literally hotfoots it across the burning sands while Madec watches voyeuristically from a distance, sipping espressos and margaritas (the Mercedes comes complete with gourmet kitchen), and occasionally blasting snippets of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 (because, in movies like these, psychos always have a thing for classical music). And so it goes (and goes and goes) as day gives way to night and the bloodied, battered, but surprisingly resilient Boy Scout proves frustratingly hard to kill.
Leonetti, who made a striking debut in his native France with the low-budget dystopian sci-fi pic “Carre blanc” (2011), seems completely lost here, fatally disconnected from the material and from his actors. Looking exhausted and about as old as his own father, Douglas gives a lip-smacking, Wile E. Coyote-style performance here that’s good for a couple of chuckles early on but quickly wears thin. Irvine (“War Horse”), by contrast, is as stolid as any of the desert outcroppings (the pic was shot in and around Shiprock, N.M.), seemingly cast for his ability to appear lean and rugged in his briefs than to convey any meaningful emotion. He’s at his best in one scene where he plays dead — which is pretty much what “The Reach” does from first frame to last.
The stark beauty of the locations, framed in widescreen by longtime James Cameron d.p. Russell Carpenter, is one of the pic’s few selling points, though the natural intensity of the desert colors appeared washed out on digital print screened for review.