Only those who have enjoyed Maisie Williams' seasons-long trek on HBO's Game of Thrones may find something notable about Heatstroke, a survival thriller in which she crosses the African desert with another adult companion. Otherwise the film, directed by Evelyn Purcell in her first feature since the '80s, fails to take proper advantage of the danger-rich environment full of evil poachers, wild hyenas, and Mother Nature's brutal hand. With little to offer but bland, generic characters and lukewarm shocks, the real act of survival is making it through Heatstroke all the way through to the end.
Stephen Dorff is Paul, an expert on hyenas who is gearing up for a trip to the wilds of Africa to study the predators, bringing along his hot, tough-as-nails Russian girlfriend, Tally (Svetlana Metkina), to help out. The film kicks off with Tally, looking battered and frayed by the sun, eluding mysterious adversaries in a Cessna, so we know she can hold her own. But is she tough enough to deal with a bratty American teenager? Paul's daughter, Jo (Williams), was caught with drugs and now she's been forced to tag along with Dad so he can keep an eye on her. Jo is a spoiled brat whose face is always buried in her Ipad or ears under headphones, and when she does bother to speak it's to complain about Dad's lover or the boring surroundings.
It's a fairly one-note performance by Williams as the bratty teen, and for much of the first half of Heatstroke it plays out like an especially arid family dispute, one with the occasional hyena passing through. But then a string of events involving poachers (led by the ever-boring Peter Stormare), a car crash, and a murder thrust Tally and Jo into one another's company where neither wants to be. Chased by killers while low on life-giving water, the duo's squabbles are understandably heightened, and for a time there's a great deal of promise in watching these enemies leaning on one another for support. Exhaustion, fatigue, mirages, and the constant threat of heat stroke are long-term threats, but the most immediate concern is Jo's attitude and downright stupidity at times. Her stubbornness puts them in greater danger on more than one occasion, literally walking right into the poachers' base camp at one point. Fortunately for her, Tally's pretty badass, a sort of poor man's Lara Croft with survival skills in spades. If only we got to see more of them. And Metkina is certainly no Angelina Jolie; she lacks the charisma to lead a film like this, and the other performances are similarly underwhelming. Purcell, who also wrote the script, does a great job of capturing the exotic, wide expanse of bush country but is less effective at depicting action, something she's rarely been called upon to do and likely won't be called upon to do again.