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Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

Brother, Can You Spare Me?

The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.

--Robert De Niro, A Bronx Tale

A few years ago, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released Grindhouse, an artificially aged, excessively violent homage to the low-rent, 70s exploitation films of their youths. So complete was their attention to detail that fake trailers for other trashy movies, like Werewolf Women of the SS and Thanksgiving, played before and in between the features. Rodriguez even hosted a contest for fans to cut together their own grindhouse-style preview, and the winner--Jason Eisener's Hobo with a Shotgun--screened theatrically with some versions of the film.

Now, Hobo with a Shotgun has been expanded to a full-length film starring Rutger Hauer as an elderly drifter who fights evil in America's most corrupt small town. It's gratuitously violent, mean-spirited to the core, and sprinkled with nudity--making it more of a throwback to Lloyd Kaufman's mid-80s Troma films. Like Rodriguez's Machete, Hobo proves that the further one gets from the original Grindhouse, the less likely one is to stay true to the spirit of the films being referenced. Eisener and screenwriter John Davies have delivered a beautiful-looking, well-scored movie that has little reason to either be watched or exist.

As with many recent films that try to capitalize on 1980s nostalgia, Eisener and company, for the most part, seem to look at the era through the rolled eyes of modern hipsterdom. To them, bad acting is something to be dialed up to eleven, and scenes involving creative deaths and torture are to be used almost as frequently as dialogue. Characters screaming at the camera for ninety minutes while beating each other with razor-wrapped baseball bats and setting school buses full of children on fire* suggests that the creators believe all filmmakers working before they were born shared their lack of earnestness.

No, I'm not talking about taste; I'm talking about earnestness. Anyone can tell a good actor to perform terribly, as evidenced by Gregory Smith's embarrassing turn as Slick, the son of local mob boss, Drake (Brian Downey). But it takes real heart to wrangle a slew of bad actors into making a memorable film that succeeds in spite of its low budget and dearth of talent. Specifically, I'm thinking of Kaufman's The Toxic Avenger, which Hobo desperately wants to be. The films share the same structure and style of gore effects, as well as a gleeful disdain of political correctness. But where The Toxic Avenger had charm and heart, Hobo thinks charm and heart are lame, 80s affectations that need to be skewered and doused in fake blood.

For the sake of something or other, I'll breeze through the story. Our code hero, the Hobo, wanders into town on the back of a freight train and witnesses Drake and his two boys, Slick and Ivan (Nick Bateman) popping Drake's brother's head off with a nastily inventive gag involving a manhole cover and a speeding car. Drake has a large audience, and no one lifts a finger to help the pleading man. The Hobo follows the criminals to a club and makes a shaky stand--for which he's mutilated and thrown into a pile of garbage.

He's taken in by Abby (Molly Dunsworth), a hooker with a heart of gold whom he'd saved from Slick's unwanted advances. After getting cleaned up, he visits a pawn shop and drools over a used lawn mower that he dreams of using to start is own landscaping business. A gang of masked punks holds up the store, and the Hobo kills all of them using a shotgun he spies mounted on the wall. Thus begins a reign of bloody vigilantism that can only end with a kidnapping, rescue, and dramatic showdown. No points for guessing that the citizens reclaim their dignity, thanks to a well-timed speech about the virtues of the downtrodden.

Eisener and his extremely talented crew prove that they can make a gorgeous-looking terrible movie, so I have to wonder why they wouldn't try making a gorgeous-looking good movie. Tarantino and Rodriguez knew that the key to successful homage is delivering something original that contains stylistic or thematic elements of another piece of art. Eisener's film is a boring copy--both structurally and due to the constant, in-your-face excesses that cause near-instant disengagement on the part of the viewer.

It's a shame, too. Hauer does very well as the out-of-step old man who clings to antiquated notions of justice. His quiet scenes with Dunsworth are generic but oddly touching, and are constantly interrupted by loud, juvenile nonsense involving glass-chewing and exploding heads. Thematically, this holds true for Karim Hussain's camerawork and lighting, and the awesome, period-inspired music of Adam Burke, Darius Holbert, and Russell Howard III--which, at times, perfectly captures the synth weirdness of early John Carpenter. Again, these impressive efforts are undercut by a creator who forces them to gussy up repetitive, juvenile scenes.

Whereas Kaufman and company struggled with independent financing to make a schlocky film that they'd hoped would draw enough attention to allow them to make more films, Eisener has made a forgettable picture that follows in the tired nostalgia/remake trend dreamt up by art-oblivious studio executives. Okay, I'm projecting here, but that's what Hobo with a Shotgun feels like. From the deliberately awkward cheesy lines to the fake creases in the poster meant to evoke that "found, folded" look, the film is as authentic and entertaining as the reemergence of fuzzy wristbands a few years ago.

For his next venture, I would love to see Eisener forge a new path, to make a movie that people will want to reference and copy years after its release. He has it in him to do this, but the masterpiece won't emerge until he scrapes off the fine layer of sneering cynicism that infects his work.

*The school bus scene is called back later to great effect: this movie's one interesting idea sees Slick atoning for his sins in what may be an homage to Trick 'R Treat--which was itself an homage to 80s horror films.

This review was requested by Mark S.

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