Friday, May 13, 2011

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

The first time he uses his titular shotgun, Rutger Hauer’s titular hobo character barks out the line, “I’m going to sleep in your bloody carcass tonight!” right before blasting a pawn shop robber into a bloody carcass. Like much of the dialogue in Hobo with a Shotgun, the line is instantly quotable, a bit silly, and over-the-top. It’s also not remotely the sort of thing an actual hobo with a shotgun might say in real life, but more the sort of thing a vigilante character might say in a movie. Do you know the fake movies that play in the background of real movies when they don’t want to pay for the rights to an existing title? Hobo with a Shotgun is like that- everything in it is self-consciously quoting an exploitation film cliché. If you’re a fan of these movies, you’ll enjoy the knowing winks and nudges, but it’s hard not to feel afterwards like the real movie was taking place somewhere else.

When Jessie Eisener's fake trailer for an unmade film entitled Hobo with a Shotgun played before the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse double feature here in Canada, it fit the faux-grindhouse style like a leather miniskirt, perfectly matching the gritty look and outrageous premises of those 70s grindhouse actioners. It looked like it might really be the trailer for a lost movie. So, when word got out that the trailer would be extended to a full-length movie, as Rodriguez did with Machete, fanboys and girls were fairly excited, especially since Rutger Hauer signed on to play the main character.

Rutger Hauer has been a great character actor since Paul Veerhoven first made him a star in their native Netherlands. He has one of those weathered faces that looks like a sun-cracked field where it’s pleasantly surprising to see an occasional smile bloom forth. Here he plays a homeless man who arrives in a crime-ridden city and, like the main character in many a spaghetti western, is finally resolved to clean up that crime by killing a lot of people. Along the way, he meets Abby (Molly Dunsworth), a hooker with a heart of gold, who adopts him as a sort of father figure. They plan to get out of the town and make a better life for themselves as lawnmowers. Everyone in the town plans to get out and make a better life for themselves. It’s a wonder that nobody mentions how hard life has been there, ever since they closed down the factory.

Opposing him are a crime boss named "The Drake" (played by Brian Downey) and his two sons Ivan (played as a sort of psychotic Tom Cruise by Nick Bateman) and Slick (Gregory Smith), who distribute mounds of cocaine, scream "Whooo!" frequently, and kill a lot of people. There are also roving gangs of punk rockers bullying passersby and a bounty hunter duo in full body armor. This is a movie that leaves no cliche unturned.

Of course, very little here is actually supposed to be original. The film is more an homage to those sleazy 80s action films that came in cheap plastic clamshell video boxes with cover paintings that made them look much more exciting than they actually were. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to make a movie that would deliver on the promise of its title. And they succeeded marvelously at that; to the point that I can guarantee that many reviews will use the verb "delivers".

The movie also makes a strong case for the worth of somewhat archaic filmmaking techniques. The technicolor cinematography by Karim Hussain is strikingly lush, colorful, and gorgeous. The effects are moist and handled practically, without the cartoony CGI bloodspurts of recent genre films. The film is similar to Machete in that it throws a lot of creative ideas at the screen. Unlike Machete, however, Hobo sticks to one main plotline and keeps any political subtext to a minimum- although it parodies poverty, it has nothing to say about it.

It's also more attentive to detail, while Machete felt a bit rushed and shoddy. Here, you get the feeling that the director is trying to stuff everything he enjoyed about 80s exploitation movies and culture into one movie. There are graffiti-soaked alleys, dark, neon-lit video arcades, bad guys who deserve to be turned into action figures, amoral bikini-clad bimbos, overacting bad guys, horrific violence, and plenty of gruesome Youtube-length set pieces that pay due reverence to badfilm classics. If you take it purely on a fanboy level, it's a mini-masterpiece of genre homage and will, most likely, become a cult classic, since it's a pure sugar rush of a sleaze movie.

Okay, but now let's take it on the cinephile dick level.

It's not really a movie, is it? It's more a series of Youtube-ready set pieces that doesn't quite add up to a whole. And once you get past the artistry of the thing, it has nothing in particular that it wants to say, aside from "Hey, do you remember when they used to do that in 80s movies?" Movies now comment only on other movies or pop detritus, but the exploitation movies that we all remember from that era generally had something to say about the outside world. Take Romero's Dawn of the Dead- there's a hell of a lot more going on there than "Hey, remember in zombie movies when they do this?" The people who made the 70s exploitation movies were bringing in all sorts of concerns and interests. Last House on the Left, for instance, is both a parable about American warfare in Vietnam and a remake of the Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring (itself a 'remake' of a Medieval fable), as well as being a grueling (maybe not very good) exploitation film. What are the chances the fanboys have ever watched a Bergman film? Or have any thoughts whatsoever on the military industrial complex? Or, really, have anything to say at all about real life?

There's a difference between having something interesting to say about your time and context and doing so in a fairly hamfisted, inartistic way- which, to be honest, many of my favorite grindhouse movies do- and having a lot of interesting visual ideas, but without any central idea, and hiding any artistic weaknesses behind a retro aesthetic. "It's not supposed to be a good movie!" is the usual defense of these faux grindhouse flicks.

Fair enough. These movies were never high art. But, just like in any other genre, the truly original exploitation films stand out. Hobo with a Shotgun hasn't got many original bones in its tired old body. It's sort of a parody, although it's only sporadically funny. It works best as an homage, but I think I'd rather watch the geniunely bad movies this new wave of faux-filmmakers are endlessly referencing- at least the 70s crackpots were sincere in their artlessness.


  1. Excellent review, Rufus. I haven't seen 'HOBO' yet, but you make some compelling points.

  2. gots to agree on all accounts. lotsa fun, not so much substance. and that is okay, but at the end of the day i need story and characters and themes to really make me care, and thus, love a movie.

  3. Ward- yeah, I totally loved a lot of things in that movie and I'd definitely go see it with a crowd of genre fans- but it reminded me a lot of those comedies where they take an SNL sketch and make a whole movie out of it- lots of great stuff, but it didn't quite jell for me.

    Aaron- thanks for the kind words!