Hobo with a Shotgun

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/26/11 08:30:50

"An avenger who truly has nothing to lose."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2011 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: "Hobo with a Shotgun" arrives with one of the most straightforward, descriptive titles for an action movie since "Snakes on a Plane". That simplicity serves it fairly well; it's exactly the sort of 1980s exploitation pastiche the name implies, as good as a movie about a shotgun-wielding hobo can be.

Why the hobo (Rutger Hauer) gets off the train near Hopetown doesn't matter, although one might wonder why he doesn't hop the next train out when he sees that the town's name is far from accurate is unclear. As soon as he arrives, he sees local crime boss Drake (Brian Downey) and his sons Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman) executing Drake's brother as an example to the populace. When one of the boys tries to rape a hooker (Molly Dunsworth), he steps in to make a citizen's arrest. The whole police force is on the take, though, so he's beaten and mauled, the word "scum" carved into his chest. Soon, he snaps, and instead of getting that lawn mower he's always wanted, he gets himself a scattergun and starts rampaging.

From the opening titles on, the filmmakers create a fairly dead-on recreation of bloody action flicks from the old school. They never specifically place things in the eighties with gratuitous pop-culture references or nostalgic musical cues, but the Miami Vice fashions that the villains favor and the eight-bit games in the arcade place us in that time period, or at least its frame of mind. Many pieces will seem immediately familiar - the crowds overlooking a vacant arena, the gratuitous blood and nudity, and the goons that are one step away from being supervillains (or at least their henchmen). Blood and gore are all over the place, with main characters bleeding a lot but soldiering on while the body parts of of minor characters more or less explode when struck.

Hobo is a "warts-and-all" sort of recreation, especially where the villains are concerned. The acting isn't great, and the dialog has a certain specific, deliberate flatness, the sort where it's hard to tell whether the writers wrote dumb lines that they thought were impressive or whether it's meant to sound lame but realistic coming from a thug who thinks it makes him sound like a badass. For a movie like this, though, that's arguably exactly the right spot to hit; it's a pitch-perfect recreation of a VHS-era grindhouse flick, pushed just astride the line between parody and homage. The jokes aren't obvious reference-based riffs, but actually funny, and the kills are creative and nasty, not just absurd). And when director Jason Eisener and company bring out the armored up pair called "The Plague" for the finale, they're a legitimately cool threat.

Another wise move on their part is having Rutger Hauer play the title character as an actual half-crazy homeless person rather than an undercover cop or the ex-special forces guy you might expect. Hauer's not doing nuanced work, but the gruff demeanor suits him, and his portrayal of the Hobo's sometimes semi-delusional state makes him more of an anti-hero than a traditional lead. He's surrounded by plenty of more-than-serviceable support: Molly Dunsworth makes for a charming hooker with a heart of gold, and both Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman are what they need to be playing off Brain Downey and each other. Downey himself is a bit of a mixed bag - he plays Drake in a way that suggests that the production couldn't afford Ray Wise once they'd shelled out for Hauer, and I'm not sure that the idea was for the performance to have that much cheese. Scott Vrooman, meanwhile, may be underused, playing the city's only honest (rookie) cop with deadpan confusion.

This sort of homage picture is hard to pull off, most fail far more often than they succeed - when you set out to imitate bad movies, it's not surprising to wind up with a bad movie. "Hobo" comes very close to falling into that trap, and may very well do so for many viewers. It's general avoidance of winking parody, decent cast, and a number of genuinely clever bits probably put it on the plus side for anybody who would want to see it in the first place.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.