As COVID-19 rages, infecting, and exterminating millions, filmmakers were bound to appropriate it as the basis for a movie. Adam Mason’s “Songbird” (2020) was the earliest epic to take advantage of the contagion. Meanwhile, “Rogue Hostage” director Jon Keeyes and freshman writer Matthew Rogers are the first to exploit the spread of the Delta variant in “The Survivalist” (**1/2 OUT OF ****), a suspenseful but gloomy saga set at an isolated ranch in the sprawling Pennsylvania wilderness.

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A retired FBI agent, Ben Grant (Jonathan Rhys Meyers of “Mission: Impossible 3”), clashes with a murderous messiah, Aaron (John Malkovich of “Dangerous Liaisons”), over the fate of a damsel-in-distress whose Delta immunity may provide mankind with a desperately needed antidote. Aaron is the sole survivor of a viral outbreak at a quarantine camp that annihilated 20-thousand souls. When he learns about this unique woman, Aaron dreams of fathering a dynasty of virus-resistant humans with her!

Civilization has collapsed and pandemonium rules. Worse, mankind has no vaccine. Our ex-FBI agent hero plans to ride out the pandemic at his ranch with his stockpile of arms, ammo, and rations. Little does Ben know a former Bureau agent, Guy Hodges (Tom Pecinka), has been trudging through the woods to seek refuge with Ben.

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Tragedy strikes while his sister Sarah (Ruby Modine of “Happy Death Day”) is tagging along with him. Aaron’s trigger-happy henchmen corner them. Sacrificing himself so she can escape, Guy dies in a gunfight. Eventually, Ben stumbles onto an exhausted Sarah passed out in his stable. He carries her into his house to recuperate. Some may spot similarities between “The Survivalist” and Alfonso Cuarón’s futuristic “Children of Men” (2006) about the last fertile woman in the world searching for a safe haven to birth her baby.

“The Survivalist” opens with pirate radio station operator Alpha One-Nine (voice of Lori Petty of “Tank Girl”) delivering daily morale boosting broadcasts. By her count, 592 days have passed since the COVID-19 Delta variant has devastated America.

While doctors reveled in triumph about Aaron’s inexplicable but miraculous recovery, he learns from a nurse, Marley (Jenna Leigh Green of “Wild Indian”), about Sarah’s immunity. Sarah becomes the object of a widespread manhunt.

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Recruiting five ruffians, Aaron kills some caretakers at a quarantine camp and hijacks a fire rescue truck. He knew Guy was FBI. Moreover, before the pandemic, Aaron collected gambling debts, so he knew about Heath Grant (Julian Sands of “Warlock”) and his gambling addiction. Aaron and company head for Ben’s ranch.

Several father & son flashbacks are seamlessly interspersed throughout “The Survivalist.” Ben came home to save the ranch and protect his father from debt collectors. Nevertheless, the debt collectors got inside and killed Heath. Now, when he awakens, Ben arms himself with a pistol and a rifle before he eats breakfast. People are as desperate as the times. Land pirates have taken to raiding homes for firearms and food.

Eventually, Aaron and company arrive at Ben’s ranch. He rescued Marley and his five accomplices from the isolation camp. None were afflicted with the Delta variant, so they owe their lives to him. Not only does Aaron want Sarah, but he also wants all of Ben’s supplies. An eerie standoff erupts into a bullet-riddled hailstorm.

Ben kills one of Aaron’s men and retreats with a superficial flesh wound. Briefly, each side relents because they are running low on ammo. Later, Aaron’s men escalate the violence and crash their truck through Ben’s barricade. Afterward, they storm the premises.

Awakened by the gunfire, Sarah is alarmed at the prospect of Aaron taking her hostage. We learn Ben’s specialty as an FBI agent was cartography! He was not a veteran field agent. This explains his wasteful use of ammo as well as his hesitancy to kill.

Aaron’s henchmen worship him like a god, and they are prepared to die for him. Marley acts as his right hand. John Malkovich dominates “The Survivalist” with an unforgettable performance as Aaron. He insists that only he can save mankind by saving Sarah.

Malkovich utters his dialogue with bombastic relish. No matter how outlandish these events seem, director Jon Keeyes eschews humor and wallows in grim realism. “The Survivalist” takes place at Ben’s ranch and boils down to a self-defensive home invasion escapade.

Every minute of this sordid 90-minute yarn is grueling. As the defiant hero, Jonathan Rhys Meyers finds himself outnumbered. Although he lacks the expertise of a field agent, he rises to the challenge. Not only does he gun down some intruders, but he also strangles one with his bare hands.

This abject savagery traumatizes him. As the psychotic nurse who alerted Aaron about Sarah, Jenna Leigh Green is a cunning villainess. When a ruffian starts bawling after Ben has killed his friend, Molly threatens to “bitch slap” him if he doesn’t shape up and start shooting.

According to director Jon Keeyes, Rogers and he penned “The Survivalist” before the Coronavirus struck. They had plans for a thriller about a deadly viral outbreak. When COVID-19 came along, they changed their virus to the Delta variant for the sake of relevancy.

Although it qualifies as hard knuckled and humorless, this actioneer compensates with irony and ambiguity. Keeyes orchestrates some slam-bang violence with adversaries engaging in rugged hand-to-hand combat. Whether hero or villain, each always exhausts their ammo at the worse possible moment for dramatic impact. This pugnacious pulp packs an interesting surprise or two you won’t see coming until the final quarter hour.

Indeed, the filmmakers resolve the mystery of Sarah’s immunity! Nevertheless, despite a robust cast and atmospheric photography, Keeyes’ film amounts to little more than a slick, eccentric B-movie with an attitude. Above all, COVID-19 serves largely as a plot gimmick, and “The Survivalist” offers little insight about how to survive in this current malady.

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