I know before I even write the bulk of this review that critiquing Hobo with a Shotgun is a pointless exercise, that the movie is knowingly one-note and that its 74% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is indicative of a critical base that accepted and liked the movie on that basis—a film called Hobo with a Shotgun delivers a hobo with a shotgun; take it or leave it. I also know going into this that my expectations for Hobo with a Shotgun were too high. In 2007, when Grindhouse flopped and was split into two movies for the foreign market and eventual DVD release, the overarching concept of the Tarrantino/Rodriguez collaboration was dropped in hopes of salvaging what money there was left to be made. The small number of people who went to see Grindhouse in its original form, myself included, came out of the experience talking less about the two real movies—Death Proof and Planet Terror—that made up the bulk of the experience, but the fake trailers that served as a garnish for the main course. The only way of sharing these fake trailers was to look for bootleg versions on YouTube, and doing so turned up the incredibly amateurish, lo-fi trailer that became this film. Originally shot for a Robert Rodriguez-judged SXSW contest with the winning trailer getting added to some cuts of Grindhouse, Hobo with a Shotgun’s lack of pedigree and star power, combined with its incredible title and endless pluck made it seem both the most genuine effort of Grindhouse’s five fake trailers and the one least likely to get blown up to feature length. But Hobo with a Shotgun got made, and with the unexpected addition of Rutger Hauer as the titular shotgun-wielding hobo. This, coupled with another fantastic trailer, pushed my expectations through the roof. As is obvious from the “Shut the Fuck Up, Donny” rating I’m giving it, I was more than a little let down by the end product.
Rutger Hauer: Hobo
Brian Downey: The Drake
Molly Dunsworth: Abby
Slick: Gregory Smith
Ivan: Nick Bateman
Shut the Fuck Up, Donny
It’s not the plot, which is simple and effective in way of other movies whose plots can be summed up by their titles. The film is concerned with a hobo (Hauer) who rides the rails to the end of the line and ends up in a desolate, grimy city where seedy filmmakers offer men like him $10 to fight other bums or chew broken glass, and where a town full of people simply look on as an over-the-top crime lord beheads his own brother using a manhole cover, a pickup truck, and a barbwire noose. This crimelord, known as The Drake (Brian Downey), commits his crimes as though he were the host of the Running Man, and uses his considerable cachet to ensure that his sons Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman) are eternally coked-up, sexed-up, and satisfied in their nightmare version of the Foot Clan’s arcade, where the most fun one is likely to have is not having your head smashed in between the fenders of two bumper cars.
The hobo begins all this as an idle spectator. He’s horrified, of course, but all he wants is enough change to buy the lawnmower in the window of the city’s pawnshop so he can go into business for himself. Eventually, the hobo is witness to Slick’s decision to kill Abby (Molly Dunsworth), a prostitute, so he knocks Slick out with a sock full of coins and turns him in to the local police. Unsurprisingly, they’re corrupt, and the corruption of the city leads the hobo to doing some degenerating things for the bumfight promoter so he can get his lawnmower and get out of town. But when the pawnshop is held up, the hobo instead grabs a shotgun off the wall and begins delivering justice…one shell at a time.
Obviously the hobo starts small and works his way up. He blows away crooks, dirty cops, pedophiles and rapists before turning his attention to Slick, Ivan and The Drake himself, and Hobo with a Shotgun makes every effort to shock and appall its audience along the way. This is Hobo with a Shotgun’s first mistake. In the 70s, Hobo with a Shotgun’s formula—crime in progress, hobo shows up with shotgun, hobo calls criminal a cocksucker, hobo pulls the trigger and paints the camera lens with criminal’s blood—might have been audacious enough to see the film through, but it’s 2011, and if you’re the kind of person who is offended by buckets of fake blood and mile after mile of fake intestine, you probably weren’t going to give Hobo with a Shotgun much of a chance to begin with. While I can’t speak for all genre aficionados, I’ve come to expect something more over the top to these films than just the level of violence. Planet Terror, for instance, put its hero on a pocket bike while he blew away zombies. Black Dynamite’s one-liners were so knowingly bad that characters stared into the camera in disbelief. Death Proof was so pretentious that calling it a grindhouse movie was a bit of a stretch. Here, when a cop screams “Welcome to Fucktown!” it may as well be because the city is called Fucktown, for all the filmmakers care.
But, on the other hand, I might be reading too much into the new grindhouse, or, hell, the old; maybe the social commentary I read into Shaft or Foxy Brown, the empowerment angle I saw in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or the showmanship I appreciate in a William Castle movie (or, for that matter, an old Dolemite film), or the classic gothic horror elements of a Hammer or Paul Naschy flick are flimsy excuses I hold for liking stuff that others would see as bad films about breasts, revenge and sadism. Maybe I’m really mad about Hobo with a Shotgun because it doesn’t hide its breasts, revenge or sadism behind (real or imagined) artifice.
If that’s the case, then Hobo with a Shotgun is still an incredibly bad movie with few things to recommend it on. For instance, there’s Rutger Hauer, who seems to have been cosmically displaced in this film from an alternate universe where Hobo with a Shotgun doesn’t suck. He manages to conjure up flashes of Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Bronson’s Paul Kersey, oscillating wildly between The Man’s icy reserve and Kersey’s lunatic fringe, and does so without following the film over the edge. In a movie where the characters are either a) dull b) dreadfully campy or c) both, Hauer’s restraint is admirable. He nails his part and deserves a better movie. I also dug the film’s score, which relied on fat, driving, John Carpenteresque synths that are often more dramatic, more chilling than the scenes they’re playing under. Otherwise, scenes where The Drake hits a human piñata with a baseball bat that’s got razorblades affixed to it or where The Drake’s kids roast a school bus full of children with a flamethrower do as much to advance the plot as they did for me as a viewer, which is to say nothing. Hauer aside, Hobo with a Shotgun plays like a student project that substitutes ugly, blacklight-washed scenes for style and watered down elements of better films for substance. It’s less a love letter to an old genre than an excuse to throw stage blood at a rolling camera. Hobo with a Shotgun didn’t need to be art, but I would’ve liked it to at least be a movie.