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A brief review of "First Response" (2015) / Speculation about film distribution

Most of us know by now that Netflix has permanently changed the landscape of film in America.  The double-whammy punch of an inexpensive, easily-accessible library and a glut of excellent television programming has led us to Hollywood funding movies only on the lower and upper extremes of budgets.  So you either get bloated tentpole movies where the expectation is to make their budget back on opening weekend, or you get tiny features that are going to be dumped on streaming services with the hope of making back their money from licensing fees.

For a movie nerd like me, this is worrisome for two main reasons.  Many critics, bloggers, and podcasters have already expounded on both:

1) As Netflix has to pay more and more to license movies, their streaming library will shrink, so you'll see fewer and fewer big-name releases.

2) Fewer and fewer movies with middle-of-the-road budgets will be made, which means comedies and thrillers in particular will suffer unless they're overly broad and bloated.

But then again, I wonder if we have it all wrong.  Case in point: First Response.

I don't want to pretend this is some groundbreaking film, so let's keep things in context when I talk about it.  First Response is a good-not-great thriller of the variety that I used to see in midday Summer programming blocks on cable back when I was a kid (and had both free time and cable).  It's the exact type of movie that you expect when you talk about a middle-of-the-road budget.  It's not explosive and epic, but it's not tiny and meandering, either.  It's a focused, tightly-scripted thriller that sets a goal and heads straight for it.

That's not to say that it did have a middle-of-the-road budget.  I don't know what the actual cost was.  And there's definitely moments where you feel that the movie had to cut back on content because it couldn't afford it.  But that's not the point.  The point is that it looks like the type of thriller I used to flock to when I was a kid.

First Response is the story of two EMTs who are held hostage by a thief after his partner is shot, and he demands that they keep him alive and help them evade arrest.  It is no more, no less.

The acting is solid across the board.  The direction is good.  The script falters a bit here and there - there's too much repetition of the "Do this" / "I don't wanna" / "Do it or I'll shoot you!" / "I'll do it now" dynamic - but it makes up for it by being clever with the progression of action.  Things never happen out of contrivance or incompetence - everybody in the movie is good at what they do, and the movie assumes that you're already familiar with thrillers, so it doesn't waste too much time on the obvious.

If it had a little more polish, this would go into my regular rotation of low-key thrillers, right up there with Cellular, Cube, The Guest, and Collateral.  (Yeah, I know, Cellular is quaint now. Still a fun movie.) It never quite gets to the level of any of these - it's missing that extra oomph that keeps you on the edge of your seat - but it has the right mindset and the right approach.

But here's the deal.  First Response is a made-for-TV movie.  It was produced by Incendo Productions for Canadian TV and then licensed by Lifetime for US distribution.  It's the type of random non-theatrical movie that Netflix is swamped with in place of bigger productions.  But because it's made so well, you wouldn't really know this until somebody told you.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying: I don't know that I really have that much to worry about.  Talented filmmakers and actors aren't disappearing - they're just finding new and more clever ways to work.  Sure, it kinda sucks that Cellular probably wouldn't get made today (and not just because of the dated novelty of cell phones), but in its place would be something equally tense from a totally unexpected source.

I guess I'm not that upset that Netflix's library is full of random weirdness.  There's so much to dive into, and as long as there's more stuff like First Response (and less stuff like The Frozen), I'll be happy.