Just as Jaws spawned dozens of knockoffs featuring man-eating animals both in and out of the water, Die Hard gave birth to numerous riffs dropping “average” characters into face-offs with gun-toting terrorists. Decades later, while the originals remain classics, the wannabe clones keep coming. The latest of the latter is essentially “Die Hard in a high school,” but while 1991’s Toy Soldiers saw teens facing off against cliched terrorists, Run Hide Fight pits its hero against a far more realistic threat: school shooters. The concept of an action movie set during a school shooting might be understandably distasteful to some, but despite some stumbles trying to find the line between the serious and the exploitative, this one succeeds where it matters with a solid, suspenseful, and often thrilling tale of bravery, cruelty, and catharsis.
Zoe (Isabel May) has been shutting down since the death of her mother (Radha Mitchell) from cancer, and while she still goes through the paces each day, there’s little to motivate her through to tomorrow. Zoe still goes hunting in the morning with her dad (Thomas Jane) and hangs out with her best friend, Lewis (Olly Sholotan), but her heart’s just not in any of it. That changes one day at school when a van crashes into the cafeteria and four students begin gunning down teens and teachers alike. Zoe plays it smart and escapes, but as she runs across a backfield, she stops with an unexpected realization: she’s unwilling to leave everyone else behind. Armed with nothing but her wits and the bare minimum of a plan, she heads back into the carnage.
School shootings are horrific events that, while not exclusive to the United States, have come to call the US home on a tragically frequent basis (2020 was the first year in a long time without at least one — thanks Covid!). Previous movies involving school shootings have almost always leaned dramatic focus on those about to be traumatized and/or on what “made” the shooters do it. Some of the best and best-known include Denis Villeneuve’s soul-crushing Polytechnique (2009), Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003). Dramas and documentaries have until now been the extent of their presence on screen, but Run Hide Fight takes things in a whole other direction by squeezing the premise for action thrills, over the top villains worth hating, and a hero worth cheering.
Writer/director Kyle Rankin — best known for being the focus of Project Greenlight‘s second season, which chronicled the making of his film The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003), but more deservedly known for the fun giant insect romp Infestation (2009) — shows an undeniable love for Die Hard in the setup and structure of Run Hide Fight. From the shooters’ clockwork precision in their arrival, control of communications, and third act attempt at misdirection to the ineffectiveness of authorities (the school’s security guard wets himself) and the physical abuse and injury thrown at Zoe’s body, the script’s flow is plenty familiar to action fans. And that’s not a criticism, as Rankin uses the structure to ramp up tension and suspense while delivering some fist-pumping beats and beat-downs.
Run Hide Fight will be seen by some as a “right-wing film,” but it’s actually surprisingly light on conservative ideals. With only one minor exception, there are no scenes involving the fabled “good guy with a gun” arriving to save the day with their own proudly carried firearm. There’s only a brief mention of God when a shooter asks a cross-wearing student where her savior is now, and there are no cameos by card-carrying dipshits like Dean Cain or Kevin Sorbo. That said, someone does sarcastically mention “trigger warning” a couple of times, and that someone is the cartoonishly-bad lead shooter.
The foursome are like some bastardized take on The Breakfast Club — you see them as a genius, a geek, a psycho, and a leather-wearing tech-whiz — and neither Zoe nor the film has any real desire to give weight to their motives, which are voiced but quickly shoved aside. The film is less interested in exploring what makes a killer down the road than it is in delivering a thrilling watch. One of the shooters has been bullied, and another hears voices, but their biggest shared trait is an indifference towards human lives that aren’t their own. One of them even refers to the victims as “things.” But it’s Tristan (Eli Brown) who has planned the shooting with precision and who plans for maximum carnage captured and carried on the shoulders of our online addiction. He is key to the film’s far from subtle commentaries on social media, news media, and blind authority, and Brown plays him big in his interactions with students and police alike. At no point does he sound like a teen, though, as evidenced by his self-proclamation as “an agent of change, a midwife of truth.” Because come on.
Forget high school, Tristan is straight out of a master class on ’80s Movie Bad Guys with his heightened dialogue and antics. As serious as Run Hide Fight plays the events, it’s elements like Tristan that keep one foot firmly entrenched in the world of action cinema. Given the setting and premise, we’re still shown numerous teens being gunned down, but whether you see it as powerful or exploitative, there’s little denying its effectiveness within the confines of genre fare. You feel the students’ terror and shake at the shooters’ barbarity, and as Rankin builds tension to one outcome or another, he does so with polished setups and craftsmanship. This is no high art, just a thrilling action film about an unlikely hero finding the strength to do what’s right.
That message — realizing that sometimes you need to put others before yourself — doesn’t belong to one political ideology or the other, and in a perfect world, it would be the norm. Zoe embodies the notion, and May does a terrific job showing her shift between self-doubt and confidence as she fights, outwits, and beats the shooters simply because she’s there, it’s the right thing to do, and she hopefully has the skill set to succeed. There are smaller acts of heroism from others, too, and they serve as a reminder of the difference that one person can make in times of need. A greater theme at play involves the choices each of us makes when it matters most. Do we sit back and let the bad guys win, or do we beat the shit out of them and leave them to bleed out like the pitiful jerks they are?
Run Hide Fight has its issues, including the motif of Zoe’s dead mom appearing to her when she’s scared or stressed — and ultimately being the source of the title as she gradually encourages her daughter to run, hide, and fight. It’s tied to Zoe’s eventual growth and her ability to move on without her mother, but it can be a bit clunky at times. The logistics are also a bit suspect, as no one hears the shooting in the cafeteria, but Tristan can hear it later when he’s off in one of the classrooms. However, while they might hinder a straight drama, they’re far from truly damaging for an action movie, which is ultimately all that this is. There’s commentary here on shooters and a system unprepared to handle them, but the action/survival element is the priority fueled by a compelling lead who’s tough and tender and the driving force through to the film’s highly satisfying conclusion. If you like action unafraid to get its hands dirty, this is for you.
As a closing aside, Run Hide Fight is not a “conservative” movie made by a right-leaning filmmaker. It’s a solidly entertaining action/thriller that had the misfortune of being produced by a company that closed its doors due to potentially criminal management and has been distributed by some right-wing knobs hoping to break into Hollywood, as that’s where all the fun parties are. That’s all outside noise, though, and the film — like any other — deserves to be judged on its own merits.