April 29, 2022 Hostile Territory (Movie Review)
Fancy a post-Civil War family drama set in the Wild West with plenty of action? Well, that is what is on offer either way with Hostile Territory. Formerly known as The Orphan Train, the film is due to have a limited cinema run on April 22nd, then it will reach streaming platforms from 26th onwards courtesy of Saban Films.
The film was written, directed, and produced by Brian Presley (Home of the Brave 2006, The Great Alaskan Race 2019) and follows a Unionist soldier called Jack Calgrove (also Presley). He gets caught by the Confederates and imprisoned as a POW. He spends so long inside that he is presumed dead back home.
Once the war ends, he rushes back only to learn his wife Molly (Jill North) had died during that time, and his children Lizzy (Emma Presley), Lily (Ruby Presley) and Charlie (Jackson Presley) were put on an orphan train and sent westward into foster care. Calgrove forms a team with an ex-soldier called Desmond Richards (Craig Tate: Greyhound 2020, King Richard 2021), Alice (Natalie Whittle: Orbital Redux 2018, Bi the Way 2021)- a mother looking for her lost child, and a group of Native American gunmen in order to catch the train and save his children before it is too late.
It sounds like a rip-roaring adventure, or an old-school Western. Instead, it focuses more on the drama aspect than the gunplay. Which might actually be for the best, as the battle scenes are not particularly great. They are not awful either- the gunplay looks effective enough, and the editing, while kind of shaky, carries the story of the scene clearly. Though one can see the figurative seams when Jack has to break out the melee weapons. Not a lot to write home about here.
Instead, the film plays up the drama, as it has a fairly slow start that essentially explains what orphan trains were, why they were put in place, etc, through exposition delivered by a grown-up Lizzy (Erin Presley: Living with Fran 2005, Americanizing Shelley 2007). Then the film cuts between the kids on the train, their big brother Phil (Cooper North: Campus Law 2017, Marvel’s Avengers 2020) waiting to pick them up, and then Jack and Desmond racing on to Missouri to catch the train.
Each one has issues. Phil has a romantic subplot with a woman called Ingrid (Brianna Ellis: Friday’s Child 2018) that is not very convincing. She meets him for one scene, then suddenly he becomes her world. The film tries to address this sudden turn, but it comes off rather undercooked. The children do not have much characterization beyond their quirks and are ultimately walking MacGuffins for the grown-ups.
The main plot ends up being the most engaging as it has the most action, and not just from the gunplay. Presley gave his Jack a lot to do, from fighting ex-Confederates and Cheyenne warriors, to pressing his Unionist buddies for information on his children. In fact, he probably has too much to do, as his compatriots have little to do but take pot shots. At least Whittle’s Alice gets a few powerful (and alarming) moments. Tate’s Desmond gets so little to do that he could have been scrubbed out from the script and nothing would have changed.
The acting is also somewhat ho-hum overall, with Whittle and Presley getting the most effective, emotional moments. Even then, their performances are off-set by some duff line-reads and reactions, like Presley treating his wife’s death like he lost his keys. Which is just as well as she only appears once in the film and then never again. Brad Leland (Friday Night Lights series, Deepwater Horizon 2016) does come off as rather affable and charming as Frank Smith, the man behind the orphan train.
Yet unfortunately, Leland does not get enough screen time to really build up his character and make much of an impact. The same goes for Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects 2005, Unstoppable 2010) and Matt McCoy (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle 1992, Jack Ryan 2018), who also get top billing for a few minutes’ worth of scenes.
Still, the cinematography, sets and costumes look nice enough. There was definitely plenty of effort put into the film to make it look wild and western, and any viewer would get the sense Presley was really into the topic of orphan trains rather than making a quick buck. Though with how much limelight he gives to his character, and to those played by his other family members, it does leave one wondering if this was a vanity project. Especially with its ending, which can come across as particularly tone-deaf despite its intentions.
Either that or Hostile Territory was made for a particular audience. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 2.5 out of 5 stars.