'Hobo with a Shotgun' is everything you'd want a film called 'Hobo with a Shotgun' to be, except that ideally you'd be watching it on a crusty VHS tape that you found in the back of an independent video store run by a weird guy with a ponytail.
In an era of too much campy self-awareness, too many grindhouse homages, and too much blood-for-blood's-sake, 'HWAS' is a breath of fresh, sleazy air. First-time director Jason Eisener, expanding on the fake trailer that he and writer John Davies made in 2007 as part of a contest, takes exactly the right tone, straddling the line between imitation and parody. 'HWAS' both makes fun of Troma-style exploitation movies and is one itself.
The key is to play it with a straight face. Luckily, Eisener has Rutger Hauer, the iconic veteran actor who seems like he ought to have been in a movie called 'Hobo with a Shotgun' already. Hauer shows in his performance that he knows what the joke is, but also that he knows not to let it show. He doesn't wink at the audience, but he isn't a clueless old man, either. He gets it.
Hauer plays an unnamed hobo (think Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone trilogy) who rides into a miserable Canadian town that has become a nightmare of crime, violence, and depravity. The chief perpetrator is The Drake (Brian Downey), a slick-haired sleazeball who runs a crime empire with his psychopath sons, Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman). The Drake does whatever he wants with impunity -- the cops are useless or corrupt -- and inspires every lowlife in town to do the same. The crimes are depicted unrealistically, over-the-top: a pedophile in a Santa Claus costume leers at children on a playground; a man is hung upside-down and beaten like a piñata by hot topless chicks. This lets us enjoy the madness without having to consider the unsettling real-world implications of such acts. It's pure escapism, no reality.
After running afoul of The Drake and seeing so many others suffer too, the hobo finally takes matters into his own hands when thugs hold up a pawn shop where he is a customer, and where there is a shotgun on display. He starts dispensing justice throughout the city, punishing criminals quickly and bloodily. ("HOBO STOPS BEGGING, DEMANDS CHANGE," screams a newspaper headline.) He also befriends Abby (Molly Dunsworth), a hooker with a heart of gold, and must eventually face off against The Drake to save the town once and for all.
Eisener obviously grew up watching the low-budget exploitation flicks of the '70s and '80s, and he recreates their style with an impressive attention to detail. He and cinematographer Karim Hussain shot the film in vivid Technicolor, the kind where caucasian flesh tones appear almost orange and the geysers of blood are deep red. The movie has the look of something made 30 years ago. The musical score, the vaguely '80s-ish setting, and even the choice of font for the credits all contribute to the experience.
Davies' screenplay is rife with pseudo-badass lines like "I'm gonna wash this blood off with your blood" and "They're gonna make comic books out of my hate crimes." That's goofy stuff -- but it's only a half-step away from the cheesy things that people actually said, in all seriousness, in the movies that inspired this one. In a similar vein, the performances tend to be loud and clunky, just as you remember. Are these good actors convincingly pretending to be bad ones, or are they just bad? The fact that the answer is not obvious -- and that it doesn't matter either way -- is a testament to the film's success.
'Hobo with a Shotgun' works very well on that level. It summons the adrenaline-fueled pleasures of the grindhouse experience, but because its purpose is ultimately satiric, the abundant blood and debauchery come across as funny instead of vicious. The blend of homage and parody -- of laughing at and laughing with -- is nearly perfect.
MORE: Sundance Interview: 'Hobo with a Shotgun's Rutger Hauer & Jason Eisener