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Refuge (2023) Review

Renny Harlin’s career has come full circle, from low budget horror and action films like Born American and Prison through blockbusters such as Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger before reverting back to budget minded films like The Bricklayer and Refuge. This time around, he’s bringing the horrors of war back home as a soldier’s encounter with the unexplained threatens the lives of everyone around him.

Sergeant Rick Pedroni (Aston McAuley, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Rocketman) is serving somewhere in Afghanistan when his unit takes a group of Taliban prisoner. Questioned about a nearby cave, they say there’s no more of them in there, in fact none of them would go in there. Rick volunteers to check it out.

This sets off a long flashback to he and Kate’s (Sophie Simnett, Last Train to Christmas, The Lodge) wedding day. By the time he comes back to the present, he’s in a chamber full of glowing symbols and a shadowy figure is creeping up on him. He shoots them, but when he goes to check out the body, it explodes in a cloud of dust.

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Diagnosed with PTSD, Rick ends up back home, with Kate and his father (Jason Flemyng, A Violent Man, Deep Rising) who also suffers from it. But Rick seems to have something else affecting him, to the point where he won’t speak a word to anyone. Not his wife, his father or Dr. Dale (Johanna Harlin, Class Reunion 3, The Bricklayer), whose been assigned to his case.

The script by Ben Sztajnkrycer whose few other credits are all from over a decade ago, but one of them is Kaw, a fun reworking of The Birds which featured Sean Patrick Flanery, Stephen McHattie, and Kristin Booth alongside Rod Taylor who starred in Hitchcock’s film. In Refuge, he seems to be channelling another classic genre film, Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s Deathdream, with its eerie, zombie like veteran whose problems are obviously much worse than those around him suspect. Not that they don’t have glaring hints like his fondness for raw meat, or not noticing when he catches his hand with a cleaver while chopping it.

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Unlike that film however, Refuge eventually widens its scope as Rick attacks a local mosque during prayers, bringing the Imam, Ibrahim (Raza Jaffrey, Lost in Space, Harry Brown) into the picture and adding a subplot involving Islamophobia and prejudice on both sides of the issue, something he’s already dealing with via his son Farid (Shervin Alenabi, Gangs of London, The Persian Version) and his habit of beating down his tormentors.

Refuge was put together quickly after another project fell through after Harlin was already in Bulgaria to film it. Maybe the lack of prep, and rewrite, time had something to do with how flat and uninvolving it all is. Usually the worst I can say about one of his films that it’s watchable, this doesn’t even reach that level.

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Even the last half hour, which at least tries to deliver some scares, is undercut by lines like “Why didn’t you tell me my son was possessed by some A-rab demon” and “He needs a real cleric, not some rag head voodoo witch doctor”. I know it’s trying to make a point, but cheesy, overwrought dialogue like that doesn’t help make it. Similarly, levitating furniture and Rick wearing a mask that looks like a giant turd don’t exactly send shivers up the spine. The mask however does sum up the film pretty nicely.

A jumbled mess that tries to do too many things, never focuses on any of them and ends up doing none of them well or even particularly competently, Refuge is a major disappointment due to both the talent involved and the plot’s potential. Even the cast seem to realize what a mess it is and sleepwalk through it. If the idea of modern soldiers encountering ancient Arabic demons sounds interesting, I’d suggest watching Stranded aka Djinns or Red Sands instead.

Vertical Entertainment has released Refuge in theatres as well as to VOD and Digital Platforms.

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