Retro Review: HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011){0}

Take a big slice of Troma-style tongue-in-cheek nastiness, sprinkle it with some legitimately (if consistently) raunchy dialogue, pepper it with liberal doses of over-the-top (nay, cartoonish) ultra-violence, and cap it all off with a truly entertaining performance from a great veteran character actor, and you’re halfway to appreciating the serious lunacy on display in Jason Eisener’s Hobo With a Shotgun. It’s crazy, it’s messy, it’s even got a few moments of truly schizophrenic weirdness — but Hobo is also the sort of gleefully broad piece of grindhouse exploitation we don’t get much of these days. And if it sounds like Hobo With a Shotgun would make for a perfect complement to Planet TerrorDeath Proof and Machete, there’s a good reason for that: not too long ago, Mr. Eisener and his pals won a “Grindhouse” contest that was sponsored by SXSW and the Alamo Drafthouse.

The goal of the contest was to create a trailer for an exploitation film that doesn’t exist, and of course the contest was part of the big Grindhouse premiere that took place in Austin a few years back. Eisener’s short version of Hobo was a cleverly pointed impersonation of a low-end action trailer that might have popped up in Times Square some time in the late 1970s — and everyone loved it, including some producers who felt that Hobo With a Shotgun could make for an amusing feature-length project. So already it’s a Cinderella story: young filmmakers with skill, insight, and enthusiasm cook up a short film for a goofy contest, only to have the mini-flick turn into a major movie within four years. But is the longer version any good? Hell yes, provided you have the stomach for childishly gross violence, outrageously creative profanity, and tonal switches that veer from surprisingly clever to intermittently incongruous. (That’s my way of saying I love the sweet-yet-nasty vibe of the flick, but I also feel it goes a bit too far in a few sequences.)

But hell, I’m all for a flick that goes a little “too far” as opposed to one that plays it “too damn safe” — we get tons of those films anyway — and there’s little denying that Eisener’s debut feature arrives with a good deal of black humor, infectious energy, and shock value material that’ll make you chuckle while moaning “ouch!” as the mayhem spills across the screen. Plus if you’re a film fanatic who enjoys the work of Mr. Rutger Hauer (and, really, who doesn’t?) you’ll be pleased to see the guy go from dejected loner to reluctant ally and infuriated mega-hero within the span of 86 expeditious minutes. (Special mention to leading lady Molly Dunsworth, whose character is a victim, a sidekick, and a heroine all her own.)

The story covers little more than a lone hobo who wanders into a town filled with lowlifes, thugs, brutes, criminals, and tons of victims, only to run afoul of the big boss, befriend a beleaguered young woman, and get his ass kicked several times. And things get even worse from there. At its best moments, Hobo With a Shotgun is a morally-twisted neo-western action flick, but it’s also rife with excessively puerile vulgarity, enthusiastically creative methods of killing people, and a cock-eyed grin that says (ok, demands) that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. If Hobo With a Shotgun was the first movie you ever saw, you’d probably hate the thing and never turn your DVD player on again … but for those who were raised on multiple levels of broad, silly, over-the-top exploitation roughage, Hobo is a treat: it works as a basic “redemption tale action splatstick” piece, plus it’s loaded with geek-friendly in-jokes that keep the flick afloat through the non-crazy parts.

Plus it’s always nice to find a wacky movie that knows how to employ “shock value” violence with some degree of timing and cleverness.

(Disclosure: I’ve known Jason Eisener and his producer Rob Cotterill for years — we met right after they won the Grindhouse contest, actually — and they said they’d still like me even if I hated the movie. My thanks to the Hobo team for making a potential conflict a whole lot easier by telling me that, but also by making an amusingly insane little movie. Given that the three of us adore the same weird genre flicks from the ’70s and ’80s, I’m not even remotely surprised that I dug their movie. Still, it’s probably worth mentioning that we’re pals. So I just did.)