I gotta level with you: I'm not sure what the hell to make of Hobo with a Shotgun. It treads, quite uneasily, the fine line of bad movie parody: Is it playing at being terrible, or is it legitimately terrible? Or both? It certainly feels like a bad movie--the filmmaking is incompetent and the dialogue is atrocious. Some of that is clearly on purpose. But how much?
The early scenes are not promising. Yes, it's got a spot-on opening credit sequence, in which the title character (Rutger Hauer) rides into a lawless town on a rail; from the super-saturated color to the corny music to the title logo on screen (complete with copyright date), they've got the grindhouse aesthetic down cold. (The film began as a the winner of a fan-made exploitation-style trailer contest connected to the 2007 release of Grindhouse.) But the scenes that follow are basically hijacked by Drake (Brian Downey), the slimeball who runs the town, and his two sons (Gregory Smith and Robb Wells), and their acting feels less like a parody of bad performances and more like the genuine article.
The picture doesn't really find its groove until it introduces Abby (Molly Dunsworth), the tough young hooker who the hobo ends up protecting, and vice versa. Their tender bond is played exactly straight enough; "You seem like a smart and intelligent girl," he tells her, as if they're two different things. "You should be teaching." Later, he brings her a Dixie cup full of wilted dandelions, and the way she delivers the line "they're beautiful" couldn't be more perfect. Ditto her stern warning to him, as he leaves her hospital bedside to exact his vengeance: "You can't solve the world's problems with a shotgun." His stern reply? "It's all I know."
You get the idea. These scenes work, partly because director Jason Eisener gives them room to breathe, partly because both actors know exactly what angle to come at the material from. Dunsworth, appearing in her second feature film, is legitimately good--which can be hard to put across when you're caked in blood and wearing hooker heels. And you have to give it to Hauer: he's fully committed. Some actors might've played this role with a wink, but he's all in, and when he's in a scene that knows what the hell it's about, he couldn't be better.
The trouble is, for every scene that works, there's another that absolutely doesn't--like the pointless bit with the video camera guy, or just about any scene involving "the Drake" and his sons. The phrase "bug-eyed" seems wholly inadequate to describe the degree of Downey's overplaying; Smith and Wells confuse acting badly with bad acting. The movie dips hard whenever they return to the screen; it's tough to call whether it's the fault of the actors or the screenplay, but it's probably both.
Eisener gets most of the specifics right--the Troma-level production values and synth score are just as they should be, and the early-80s dystopia feel is nicely conveyed. He got a sly comic ingenuity, which comes across best in Hauer's nonsense monologues. Hobo with a Shotgun has some great scenes, and some big laughs, and it certainly wrings more life out of its premise than the one-joke Black Dynamite. But when it misfires, it's painful to watch. Then again, an audience that queues up for a movie called Hobo with a Shotgun probably has a pretty good idea of what it's in for.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.