THIS WEEK on Film Torments, George tackles a recent Grindhouse revival that polarised its audience and critics: Hobo with a Shotgun.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the moment when I realised Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun was not going to be a good film. It came about ten minutes in, when Rutger Hauer’s titular transient wanders into a strange town and finds the townsfolk standing and watching as a man’s head is ripped off his body by means of a car and a barbed-wire noose. It’s not what happens that gives it away, but rather how it happens – every character gurns and froths at the mouth as if the actors are desperately trying to prove who can overact the hardest.
There is such a thing as good overacting, of course – think Gary Oldman in Leon, or Nicholas Cage in too many films to name – but what distinguishes good overacting from bad overacting is commitment. Good overacting requires the actor to throw themselves into the role without any reservations and, most importantly, without any kind of detachment. If the actor tries to maintain an ironic distance from the performance – if they try to nod and wink at the audience, to say “Haha, look how much I’m overacting!” – then the performance loses all its power. That’s the problem with Hobo with a Shotgun – no one really feels like they’re into it.
In order to explain where this film goes wrong, it’s useful to look at a film that went right – in this case, Machete. Machete – a Robert Rodriguez-directed love letter to exploitation cinema – is every bit as insane as Hobo with a Shotgun. It’s 90 minutes of over-the-top action, gratuitous nudity, and Danny Trejo in what has to be one of his greatest performances. The reason why Machete succeeds where Hobo with Shotgun fails is simple: Machete is a good film. It’s well-directed, the special effects look great, the action sequences are phenomenally choreographed, and the script is just awesome enough to ratify its cheesiness and just cheesy enough to accentuate its awesomeness.
Above all, Machete feels worked-on; it feels as though someone has put a lot of effort into making it, because they wanted the audience to have a good time. With the exception of the special effects team (who deserve a lot more praise than they got), no one worked hard on Hobo with a Shotgun. It feels like what would happen if Rodriguez had a few drinks, threw a script together in probably less than the 85 minutes it takes to watch the film, rounded up whatever actors he could find and changed his name in the credits.
That’s really quite fitting, though, seeing as it’s how the exploitation films Eisener is trying to pay homage to were made. Ironically enough, instead of making a tongue-in-cheek homage to exploitation films, Eisener has ended up just making an exploitation film, a cynical cash grab designed for maximum profit with minimum effort.
Well, I’m nearly 500 words into the review, so it seems like the right time to say something about the plot. A homeless man (Rutger Hauer) arrives in a new town, only to find that it’s ruled by a sadistic criminal, known as The Drake, and his two sons, played by Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman, who give the two best performances in the film. Galvanised by an attempted robbery he witnesses in a pawn shop, Hauer’s Hobo decides to clean up the town. He also meets a prostitute who helps him along the way, played by Molly Dunsworth.
Rutger Hauer is a genuinely talented actor, as anyone who’s seen Blade Runner or The Hitcher knows, so watching him try and bring some quality to a film this shambolic is almost physically painful, like watching Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space. What’s worse is that there are moments when he – along with some of the other cast members – actually succeeds. Dunsworth in particular gives a solid performance despite the sheer laziness of the script, and Brian Downey really puts in some effort as the Drake, in what has to be the most over-the-top performance I’ve ever seen.
In fact, what makes this film all the more frustrating is that there are moments when something interesting shines through the crap. At one point, the Drake says to one of his sons “When life gives you razor blades, make a baseball bat covered in razor blades!” before using said weapon to cut a man open. That line, and the sheer glee with which Downey delivers it, is worth watching the film for on its own.
When I got to the part in the film, I paused it, took off my headphones and sat laughing to myself for at least a minute. There are other lines in the film that are equally quotable – “I’m gonna make you love the taste of my rot!”, “Welcome to fuck town!” and, of course, “It’s a beautiful day for a skate rape!” (On a related note, I’m pretty sure every sentence in the script ends with an exclamation mark).
When the actors deliver lines like those, it’s easy to see how great this film could have been. If Eisener had put in a little more effort, or been a little more honest, we could have had a film as good as Machete. Instead, we got one that rivals The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl as one of the worst films in recent memory.