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D: Joe Dietsch, Louie Gibson / 91m

Cast: Martin Dingle Wall, Ken Lally, Kenny Wormald, Connor Williams, Gary Sturm, C.J. Baker, Jeremy Lawson, Michael Tipps, Liesel Hanson, Kenneth Billings, Frederick Lawrence, Sherry Leigh

Warren Novack (Wall) receives news that an ex-girlfriend of his has died in Mexico, and that he has a daughter by her. Intending to travel to Mexico to do right by his daughter, Warren first has to negotiate a meth deal with a local drug dealer, Bo Dawg (Lawson). But the deal goes wrong, and Bo Dawg and his associate wind up dead. Warren heads for Mexico with two of Bo Dawg’s other associates (Williams, Lawrence) on his trail. On the way, Warren stops at the small town of Bedford Flats, close to the border. There are notices announcing an annual hunting event, but Warren has a more pressing concern: his chronic alcoholism and the need to go cold turkey before meeting his daughter. Help appears in the form of Steve (Lally), a local who runs a sobriety meeting. When Warren finds out Bo Dawg’s associates are in town, he accepts an offer of dinner with Steve and his wife (Leigh). But their hospitality has an ulterior motive, and after being drugged, Warren wakes to find himself, Bo Dawg’s associates and one of the townspeople, the objects of the annual hunt…

A tough, uncompromising reworking of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Happy Hunting is an unashamedly brutal tale that puts its central character through the wringer time and time again while celebrating his impressive knack for survival. Warren comes with a minimal back story, but he has been in the Army (even though it didn’t work out), and he has a quick, intuitive mind that helps him problem solve being chased by the gun-toting hunters of Bedford Flats. With any movie that pits one person against a gang of would-be killers, it’s the ingenuity on display that counts, and the script, by co-writers/directors Dietsch and Gibson, is full of ingenious moments that keep the savagery and violence from being just that. It helps that Warren is given more motivation than usual to stay alive, and this, added to the clever solutions he comes up with, gives the movie a greater depth than usual. For every bloody injury and unforeseen setback, Dietsch and Gibson ensure Warren stays one (mangled) step ahead of his pursuers, and is able to turn the tables on them each time – even if it’s at a physical cost to himself (which is often).

Though the movie isn’t averse to showing the effects and consequences of the violence meted out – some of it is admirably hardcore – it’s shot through with a sardonic sense of humour that makes much of it easier to accept. There’s irony too in places (Warren encounters a group of Mexicans crossing into the US), and there’s a willingness to make the escalating bloodshed a little too extreme for comfort, but it’s all done with a calculated energy that serves the material well and which doesn’t allow it to become too outrageous or over the top. Wall is a terrific choice for Warren, his weather-beaten features and gruff manner perfectly suited to the needs of the character, while the largely unknown supporting cast add verisimilitude to the people of Bedford Flats. It’s all shot by Dietsch with an eye on the natural grandeur of the Californian desert locations, while he and Gibson edit the movie with a keen sense of how to maintain or increase the tension as required. Fans of this sort of thing will find much to enjoy, but even casual viewers should find this a rewarding, if occasonally harrowing experience – though in a good way.

Rating: 8/10 – harsh, gritty, and single-minded in its approach, Happy Hunting is an action thriller that doesn’t pull any punches, and which is unapologetic about doing so; with a terrific performance from Wall, and an ending that acts as a gut punch, this is strong, mature stuff that is gripping and expertly assembled.

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