'The Reach': Toronto Review

The Reach
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Not even a gleeful Michael Douglas can make this a cat-and-mouse game worth playing

Michael Douglas and Jeremy Irvine play a corporate shark and his hunting guide in Jean-Baptiste Leonetti’s desert-set thriller

With his weathered tan, silky voice and bemused twinkle in his eye, Michael Douglas has aged well onscreen. The oiliness of the sharks and philanderers he played in films like Fatal AttractionWall Street and Basic Instinct is now tempered by the fragility that comes with getting older, and his recent turn in Behind the Candelabra felt deeper and more alive than nearly anything he had done before.

But not even Douglas can redeem The Reach, the terminally silly and thoroughly disposable new thriller he stars in and produced. It’s not for lack of effort; as a corporate meanie who drags a young guide (played by Jeremy Irvine) into a game of cat-and-mouse in the middle of the Mojave Desert, Douglas spouts Chinese into a satellite phone, slurps cocktails and generally gnaws on every bit of scenery in sight. He’s like the one fun guest at a dull party, trying to get his kicks where he can.

Directed by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Leonetti (Carre Blanc) and adapted by Stephen Susco from Robb White’s 1972 novel Deathwatch, this misfire of a modern western will likely have a hard time gaining traction outside festivals, despite the big name attached.

Leonetti opens with a few stilted scenes between blue-collar tracker Ben (Irvine) and his college-bound girlfriend (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence) before the former is hired to accompany out-of-town mogul Madec (Douglas) on a hunting trip through a treacherous stretch of desert known as “The Reach”. The trigger-happy Madec ends up mistaking an elderly man for a bighorn sheep — oops — and soon he’s pressuring Ben into helping dispose of the body. When Ben resists, Madec takes him captive, forcing him to strip down to his skivvies and wander the scorching area barefoot.

Predictably, the young man — a scrapper in the face of heat stroke and some painful-looking blisters — makes a run for it, and the remainder of The Reach consists of a stop-and-start pursuit during which Madec berates Ben via loudspeaker, attempts to flatten him with his jeep and nearly blows him to pieces with dynamite.

Ridiculous as all of that sounds, the power struggle between the two men comes with plenty of potentially rich subtext — shades of Faust and David and Goliath, a dose of class resentment, a touch of youth envy — that remains almost wholly unmined by the filmmakers. There are no shivers of danger, ambiguity or genuine wit in Madec’s interactions with Ben, or in their efforts to out-maneuver each other. Part of the problem is that as written, Madec is little more than a monstrously entitled bully, while Ben is an incorrigible bore. Irvine made a fine male ingénue in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, but his unengaging Pip nearly sunk Mike Newell’s recent Great Expectations and there’s not much to him here aside from a flawlessly toned torso; the actor’s flat affect and failure to suggest unseen depths make it hard to care whether Ben survives or disappears into the arid desert air.

Leonetti and dp Russell Carpenter make evocative use of starchy, sunbaked visuals (The Reach was shot in New Mexico), though the direction rarely rises above the functional. The chase scenes, especially, are staged unimaginatively, with pumped-up music, cuts back and forth between pursuer and pursued and slow-mo at climactic moments of violence.

There are also some wild lapses in logic and a lot of disbelief to suspend, none of which would be particularly bothersome if the film at least had a bit of snap. But when a fleeing Ben digs his way into a hidden cave only to discover the furnished living quarters of someone he knows, you may find your eyes rolling uncontrollably toward the ceiling — and feel your heart sinking as you realize Douglas has a dud on his hands. 

Director: Jean-Baptiste Leonetti
Screenplay: Stephen Susco, based on the book "Deathwatch" by Robb White
Cast: Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irvine, Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, Ronny Cox
Producers: Michael Douglas, Robert Mitas
Executive producers: Stephen Susco, Philip Elway
Director of photography: Russell Carpenter
Production designer: Clark Hunter
Editor: Adam Wolfe
Sound: Bayard Carey
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Production companies: Further Films, Literal Media

90 minutes