film review : Hobo with a Shotgun
Sunday, April 24th, 2011
When asked what movies I was looking forward to in 2011, Hobo with a Shotgun consistently topped the list. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the current “grindhouse revival”, kicked off in 2006 with the aptly-titled Tarantino/Rodriguez double header, Grindhouse. Since then, we’ve seen modern takes on blackploitation (Black Dynamite), biker flicks (Hell Ride), spaghetti westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django) and whatever the hell Nude Nuns with Big Guns is supposed to be. The great thing about these throwback flicks is they’re made to resemble the way you remember classic exploitation films, not necessarily how they actually were. We often forget how subjective our memory is, and while your 13 year-old self couldn’t help but relish in the mind-blowing awesomeness of movies like The Amazing Mr. No Legs or Bloodsucking Freaks, go ahead and watch them now. The strings show, the plots stop dead for 20 minute chunks, and they just don’t work. They’re little gems of weird cinema and still well worth a watch, but charming ineptitude aside, their audacious punch often doesn’t mitigate our adult scrutiny. These latter day exploitation films play like 90-minute versions of old-school B-movie trailers; “…every shot is a money shot.”, to quote Eli Roth. The other great thing about this new wave of trash films is they’re getting even better as they go, in utter defiance of the law of diminished returns. This is especially true of the official Grindhouse releases, with both Planet Terror and Death Proof proving to be good, not-so-clean fun, Machete reaching near operatic heights of insane bloodshed, and now Hobo with a Shotgun comes along, loaded with so much bad taste and brutal-yet-cartoonish violence that it may be the final word on the sub-genre.
Rutger Hauer stars as the Hobo, riding the rails straight into a shit-hole called Hope Town (making him an actual hobo and not just a homebum as the term is often incorrectly applied). Within mere moments of his arrival, the Hobo becomes acquainted with the crime-ridden nature of the city, witnessing local crime lord Drake (Lexx‘s Brian Downey) and his two sons (Nick Bateman and Gregory Smith) performing a brutal execution in front of a fearful mob. Growing increasingly fed up with Hope Town’s criminal element, the Hobo finally acts, preventing young hooker Abby (Molly Donsworth) from being raped by Drake’s son, Slick, and attempts to turn him in to the local authorities. He finds out very quickly that the cops are on Drake’s payroll, and he’s mutilated for his trouble. Abby finds the Hobo bloodied in a dumpster and takes him in, forming a bond between the two. Finally, after witnessing yet another atrocious crime, the Hobo snaps, grabs a shotgun and begins his crusade, dispensing his own brand of street justice.
How first time director Jason Eisener and writer John Davies even got this film made is kind of amazing, not to mention a bit inspiring. The original fake trailer was submitted for a Grindhouse contest, the winner of which would run alongside the faux trailers of Zombie, Roth and Wright. Obviously, Hobo with a Shotgun won and played during Canadian screenings of Grindhouse. The buzz around it rose to Machete-esque levels, and by virtue of said hype, Eisener and Co. were able to not only marshal a $3 million budget but also enlist the talent of genre legend Rutger Hauer. What shocks one upon viewing Hobo is how goddamn competent, treading close to masterful Eisener’s direction is. I’m not insinuating he doesn’t take cues from his forbearers at times; there’s an early reverse “Rammi-shot” and the undeniably Carpenter-esque overall look, but make no mistake, this is a young director with his own remarkably distinct style. Using heavy neon lighting, unconventional angles and handheld work (thankfully not of the ever-popular “vomit-cam” variety), Eisener and cinematographer Karim Hussain craft a hyper-real (for as much as I use that term, I really can’t stand it) landscape on which to enact his darkly funny revenge spectacle. Kudos should also be given to Davies for some of the best gut-busters in the history of the genre (“When life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball bat…covered with razor blades.”, “You and me are going on a car ride to hell. You’re riding SHOTGUN!”) as well as some others that are so groan inducing (yes, more so than the above one-liners), you know they were written with that express purpose. Tying it all together atmospherically is an top notch score from Alexander Rosborough, which is also heavily influenced by Carpenter’s work, but also possessed of an eerie, ambient/noise quality at times.
Violence is the order of the day in Hobo, and since I’m about to detail the film’s more memorably bloody set-pieces, beware: SPOILERS ABOUND. Less than ten minutes in, we are treated to Robb Wells (best known as Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, making an all-too brief appearance) being thrown down a manhole, a razor wire noose strung around his neck and his head yanked off by a car, with a hooker gyrating ecstatically in the ensuing blood spray. If you have trouble stomaching this scene, you need to get the fuck out now, ’cause blood and guts flow like it’s a Baby Cart movie for the remaining 80 minutes. A bit later, Drake’s sons board a school bus brimming with grade schoolers, brandishing a flamethrower, along with a ghetto blaster playing “Disco Inferno”. You pause and think to yourself “There is no fucking way they’d—”, and before you can finish, they fucking do. At this point, if you’re anything like me, you are roaring with laughter (Yes, patrons of the Elmwood Regal, I was, in fact, the loud drunk who ruined your screening of Episode III by cracking up when Vader offed the younglings. What of it?!). Things only get crazier when Drake’s enforcers (and thinly disguised GWAR parody) The Plague show up with harpoon launchers repurposed as strangulation guns and machete-ing everyone in sight. And as Abby saws off the titular shotgun and weaponizes a lawnmower (these guys know their audience; it’s a horror in-joke twofer!), preparing to rescue the Hobo and take the fight to Drake, you know you’re in for a bloodbath of Fulcian proportions. Believe me, fellow gore-loving sick fucks, your blood lust will be more than adequately satiated come the end credits.
Hobo with a Shotgun would have still have been an enjoyable, twisted tribute to the revenge flicks of old had it lacked Rutger Hauer in the lead role, but his presence here raises it far above the average exploitation film. This is the man who gave such memorable characters as Roy Batty (Blade Runner) and John Ryder (the original 1986 The Hitcher), not to mention being the only roundeye worthy enough to take up the mantle of Zatoichi (Blind Fury); in other words, a living fucking legend of genre character acting. I feel bad for the other actors in this film, because while most do well with their parts (Downey in particular never fails to amuse as the villain of the piece), all are eclipsed by Hauer, who treats this role like his low-budget stab at a Mickey Rorke-type career comeback. One expected Hauer to play this role with the utmost menace (don’t misunderstand me, though; he is beyond intimidating when the film calls for it), but what surprises is the emotional depth he injects into what I’m sure on paper was not a particularly substantive or complex role. For example, in the moments before the pawn shop shootout that sets his whole bloody rampage in motion, there is a second where the Hobo is about to achieve a small bit of contentment and peace. It should come off as cheesy, but you really feel for the guy. Then violence explodes onto the scene, and the crushing defeat that Hauer’s face registers hits the audience like a sledgehammer made of clinical depression. The rational part of your brain knows you should be rolling your eyes at the overly sentimental nature of it all, but it emerges as a genuinely heartbreaking moment, made possible by the alchemy of Hauer’s performance and Eisener’s direction (with some back-up from Roseborough’s score).
Hobo with a Shotgun hits you like a remake of Taxi Driver, shot by 80′s era John Carpenter and produced by Troma, and if that description doesn’t get your mouth watering for this flick, then I don’t wanna know you. The team of Eisener and Davies have crafted an endlessly fun little piece of bloodthirsty pulp filmmaking that is only further elevated towards the realm of art (lowbrow, but art nonetheless) by the multi-dimentional performance of Rutger Hauer. Hobo reigns king among the neo-exploitation films, topping even Rodriguez’s Machete (itself a personal favorite) in inventiveness and sheer carnage (my appoligies to Mr. Trejo; I fully expect a death squad led by him personally will be upon me within hours of this review going live, and I accept my fate with quiet dignity). I can only hope that this trend of Grindhouse releases of ever-increasing quality continues, and excitedly await the film that might dethrone this instant shock cinema classic. In the meantime, Hobo with a Shotgun is out now on various VOD services (Xbox Live, PSN, iTunes), with a theatrical release slated for May 6th.
- Adam Rosina