The survivalist subsect of the horror genre is one that has been oft-explored. Unfortunately, it often revolves around the brutal assault – often sexual – of a young woman, and proceeds to follow her on her righteous path of revenge. Range Runners doesn’t break the initial mould in that its focus is placed on Mel (Celeste M. Cooper), a professionally-trained runner who is in the midst of a unnamed mountain hike, who does indeed seek out revenge on those that wronged her.
Sporadic flashbacks fill us in on her childhood and the near-tyrannical mentality her father (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) adopted in his coaching of her athleticism. A rare moment of softness from him hopes to make it easier to swallow his coaching methods, and no doubt Mel has taken his sternness with her as her exterior is particularly rough. The Devon Colwell-penned script drops just enough nuggets of character development for us to understand a sense of who Mel is, both through the teachings of her father and the relationship with her sister (Tiffany Renee Johnson), who meets Mel at select checkpoints of the trail run to help her refuel.
After learning of her mother’s disapproval of her running – again, a trope to add as much emotional weight as possible – and filling us in that it’ll be 8 days until the sisters are together again, Mel is off to run the next section of the trail. It’s here that she runs into trouble in the form of generic felons Wayland (Sean Patrick Leonard, embarrassingly overdoing the macho villain thing) and Jared (Michael B. Woods). We aren’t given much background information to their characters nor motivation regarding their villainy – there’s talk of money, drugs, and a third party, but it’s all a little muddled – but they certainly don’t want to play nice with Mel.
Whilst it’s understandable that they want to lean into the deplorable villain archetype, their torture of Mel doesn’t make too much sense given that she doesn’t exactly stumble onto any of their plans, nor proves a foil. Wayland and Jared appear as evil just for evil’s sake (Wayland more so), making it all the more satisfying when Mel, after being brutally attacked (though, thankfully not sexually vilified), comes for them with a tenacity that is genuinely terrifying.
Cooper really is the sole reason Range Runners works as much as it does. There’s a lack of clarity in the story, supporting characters are barely fleshed out, and it also takes a little too long to garner the momentum needed for us to truly feel invested, all of which only adds to Cooper’s dedication to the less-than-stellar material she’s working with. Though the material may falter, it’s a great looking film thanks to the lush environment of the forest setting, with director Philip S. Plowden (who’s primarily worked as a location assistant for films such as Jupiter Ascending and Widows) detailing care in Mel’s character by adding in sequences of her getting localised water and sleeping in the woods to assist in the organic feel of what someone running in this terrain would actually do.
Whilst it’s always a positive that a woman of colour is headlining a production, Range Runners can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity, both as a genre example and a narrative to detail the intersectionality of a woman in a position such as Mel’s. A tighter script and a bolder mentality could’ve truly elevated this to be something deeper than a revenge tale, but even as it stands, it doesn’t earn enough emotional investment for us to place much care in proceedings. But dammit if Cooper isn’t a whole force that we can only hope to reckon with on a grander scale.
Range Runners is available now on demand through various digital platforms across the United States. An Australian release is still to be determined.