Hobo with a Shotgun is deliberately meant to be a bad movie. The reason that I know this is that the film is incredibly eager to remind me over and over again, of this fact. And that is why I'm almost tempted to say that it's bad. I mean, it is bad, but it's not completely bad. Like, the difference between a bad movie that is bad and a bad movie that is good.
Start again: Hobo with a Shotgun is such a desperate attempt at being one of Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino's '70s exploitation throwbacks that it's a little bit sad. It has the right pedigree: director Jason Eisener did in fact win a contest hosted by Rodriguez to make a fake exploitation trailer in the mold of his and Tarantino's Grindhouse project, and his Hobo with a Shotgun trailer was in fact screened in the Canadian distribution of that feature. This makes it the fourth of the Grindhouse features, after Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof, the original Grindhouse double feature, and Rodriguez's 2010 Machete. It is also, and this is the telling and important part, very much the worst of the four. I will return to this though.
Hobo with a Shotgun, you will be stunned and stupefied to learn, is about a hobo (Rutger Hauer), who kills people with a shotgun. There are only two important questions that are not already answered by the title: "is he a hero or a villain?" and "does he start the movie with a shotgun?" The answer to the latter is, "no", and I was legitimately surprised that it took over a third of the not very long movie (86 minutes with the credits) before he so much a glanced at a firearm. The answer to the former is that he is a hero; a vigilante in the small community of Hope Town, which as we learn in the very beginning of the movie, courtesy of a graffito'ed sign, is dismissively called "Scum Town" by the residents (it is also called "Fuck Town" in dialogue, but alas! text must take precedence). Scum Town is currently a ghastly, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-esque realm of dystopian decadence overseen by a gleefully self-aware psychopath called The Drake (Brian Downey), who uses gory, torturous public execution as a means of keeping the populace cowed and entertained in equal measure, with his two scrawny, reptilian sons (Nick Bateman and Gregory Smith) as his lieutenants.
All the hobo wants is to buy a lawnmower and start up a nice little landscape business, but his finely-honed sense of moral justice gets in the way, and so it is that he partners with a fed-up prostitute named Abby (Molly Dunsworth) to clean up Scum Town "one shell at a time" in the agreeable phrasing of the ad campaign. His efforts make him a hero to the citizenry, and so The Drake launches an excessively cruel and widespread push-back; this ultimately includes a pair of armored and apparently immortal thugs collectively named The Plague. And it also includes so much death and blood I don't quite know how to say it.
There is a line so extremely fine that I cannot be certain that it truly exists, but if it does, I think it looks like this: on one side, you have movies like the aforementioned Tarantino/Rodriguez pictures, or Larry Blamire's The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra: knowing throwbacks to the form and content of old trash cinema, that are nonetheless aware that it is not the '50s or '70s or '80s or whathaveyou, and there is an obligation laid on the maker of such movies to smuggle some kind of commentary into the finished product, an awareness that it is, after all, a latter-day simulacrum of something old. And then there is Hobo with a Shotgun on the other side, along with almost all of the movies taking their cue from Tarantino's neo-exploitation of the last decade and change, movies that are content to replicate the bad old days with nothing to justify it but a huge wink and a cheery, "Shit, this is pretty bad and stupid, don't you think?" And is is, aye, and it takes more than self-awareness to make a deliberately bad movie worth watching. After all, if you have devoted care and time and talent to making a movie that is no good - you have made a movie that is no good, whether it's on purpose or not. Frankly, I'd rather watch a genuine '80s splatter picture like the ones Eisener is emulating: at least they're not constantly leering at me with smug postmodern detachment.
Anyway, I did mention, didn't I, that Hobo with a Shotgun ends up being not completely bad-bad. It has nothing to do with the script, which except for a few isolated gags is not at all clever or satiric, and wallows in all sorts of tawdry sexist jokes, inaccurately assuming that because it's over-the-top, it's not therefore actually misogynist; nor does it have to do with Eisener's extremely enthusiastic depiction of extremely cheap and extremely messy gore effects, which feels less like Tarantino's "let us be collectively amused by the absurdity of movie violence" and more like Eli Roth's "I enjoy staging movies about dead people".
It's because, when all is said and done, the movie actually looks pretty snazzy, in a grainy, brokedown way. Eisener and cinematographer Karim Hussain pull out one of the most unique color palettes of 2012, with everything super-saturated and turned towards rally lurid variations of the colors. Not just blood-red, but red the color of Kool-Aid; not just the hard yellow of urban night light, but freakish golds; not just cool blues in the villain's lair, but eye-searing neon. And that comes atop the design of the movie, which is actually pretty imaginative considering how much of it was location photography: it is as fanciful a vision of blasted urban waste as you could get in a Canadian city, while the costumes are delightfully grubby, and The Plague are as altogether memorable-looking as any sleazy gore movie could ever want from its bad guys.
It actually doesn't look the part of an '80s throwback at all, then; it looks, in fact, like nothing much at all. That is its saving grace: without having such a striking vision underlying everything, this would just be an exhaustively violent film that fancies itself much smarter and cooler than it actually is; and it's not not that, but it's cool to look at along the way. At any rate, it's no worse than the films it emulates, even if fake cheese is never as appealing as the real thing.