In light of recent events involving director Jason Lei Howden online in the last week, I, Douglas Davidson the founder of EoM, would like to make it clear that (a) racism in any form should be called out, (b) policing of members of the aggrieved community by people outside that community is similarly intolerable, and (c) bullying of *any* kind is abhorrent. I will not presume to truly know any of what’s happened around the site Much Ado About Cinema, but Howden’s actions were not appropriate in the situation. From my perspective, the artist can and does influence the reception of the art. The following review was written before the events.
If you ever wondered what would happen if you took the stylized flourishes of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the frenetic, punk-rock direction of Crank, and the violent social commentary of The Running Man, you’d get something like the neon-soaked, morbidly comic, cleverly violent Guns Akimbo from writer/director Jason Lei Howden. The New Zealand-born creator’s first feature, Deathgasm, premiered at SXSW in 2015 where it won several awards, and his follow-up is bound to garner similar attention. Howden not only serves up the violence his audience craves, but simultaneously challenges them as to why they wanted to watch the film in the first place in a tightly packed 97 minutes. It’s a particularly sadomasochistic experience as Guns Akimbo breaks down society’s desire for violence and their fetishization of mental health stereotypes while serving up exactly what the audience craves.
Nerdy game designer Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) leads an unsatisfying life in Shrapnel City, barely looking up from his phone as he goes to work, wasting his time at his job on a pay-to-play mobile game, and basically living an otaku life-style of extreme knowledge, but low social skills. It’s not that he wants to be solitary, it’s that he lacks the motivation to be anything more than a keyboard warrior, but when he ticks off the people who run SKISM, a pay-per-view organization that pits one murderous psychotic against another in modern day gladiatorial combat, Miles is thrust into a world of fight or die where the stakes couldn’t be higher and his skills couldn’t be lower.
Before getting into the social commentary that is not remotely subtle, if you’re wondering if Guns Akimbo is any good, it’s flippin’ great. Its needle drops start with 3 Teeth’s cover of “Spin Me Round” and amp their way straight to a Stan Bush original; the action begins in earnest from the jump; and the camerawork largely makes you feel like part of the action. While not as kinetic as the marketing suggests, Howden slowly raises the threat-level and tension so that when the climax arrives, the audience is all-in on the mayhem and feeling justified in their bloodlust. Of particular note is how the film pushes the boundaries of reality as you expect based on the premise, but does so in continually surprising ways. It’s got the gamification you’d expect when PPV competition is at the center of the story, meaning that Miles’s shot counter always presents itself each time he fires a round from one of the guns SKISM bolted to his hands. Where it surprises is how Howden plays with expectations for character motivations and decision-making to the point that all bets are off by the end, almost as if Howden’s suggestion that if you’ve only got one life to live, then you’ve got to be wise, but bold. In this case, there’s a lot of audacity packed into his film. Of the things which might catch some flak, one is how any of the violence within Guns Akimbo can even be possible if so much of the narrative is grounded. The best way to view it is as a social experiment Howden’s conducting. If considered as a microcosm in which all events happen without concern for the outside world, then the legality of SKISM is acceptable in the same way that The Running Man’s death matches were acceptable, the way Robocop’s existence in crime-ridden Detroit was acceptable, the way that the Purge was acceptable. There are rules to the world of Guns Akimbo and they are followed faithfully, with several clever nods, clues, and twists to keep the audience going all the way until the end of the line.
But a film like Guns Akimbo doesn’t really work if it’s all guns, blood, and gore. After a while, the shock fades and meaty pulp becomes boring. Instead, Howden almost immediately puts his audience in a defensive psychological position via a digital code-like representation of SKISM head Riktor (Ned Dennehy) spouting about the inherent desire for bloodletting and that SKISM offers it. This continues throughout the film as the audience is shown various members of the in-film audience watching along as combatants kill each other in a variety of creative ways. Opening the film this way not only places the moral compass of the audience (us and in-film) in question, but it enables the audience (us) to get a sense of what this world is like. Not to mention it’s an easy way to introduce Miles’s soon-to-be nemesis, the greatest SKISM challenger, Nix (Samara Weaving). Beyond the intro, however, the continued use of showing us the in-film audience over and over, especially as Miles himself gets involved in the story, forces the audience (us) to consider just why no one would help poor, defenseless Miles, and maybe, ask ourselves why we put on the movie. The answer is that the chance to see Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame appear in a fish-out-of-water film where he has guns bolted to his hands and is placed in a fight for his life is just about all the reason most audiences need to watch it. Add Samara Weaving of the amazing brilliant Ready Or Not and you’ve got yourselves a rock show. But again, why do we want to watch? We know it’s fake, but at no point does Howden rely on gimmicks or tricks to downplay the life-like consequences of getting involved with SKISM. Howden never makes you forget that the in-film audience are just like us. The difference is, we think we can excuse any desire by claiming it’s all fake. This is a brilliant meta-narrative woven throughout Guns Akimbo, that’s not too different from the kinds of real-world “moments gone wrong” videos that circulate online now. The difference is, in Shrapnel City, inhibitions are gone and no one questions why anyone would watch one of the death matches.
This, of course, brings us to Nix, Weaving’s SKISM combat leader and all around diabolical terror. In a world where Radcliffe plays Miles as the literal bottom of the rung when it comes to survival skills, Weaving dominates every scene like a force of nature, which Nix very much is. Since the film’s already set up Riktor as the Big Bad of Guns Akimbo, Nix has to be something else and just about everything the audience learns about her comes from the spectators and announcers watching her compete. From there, the foundations of a stereotypical mentally disturbed individual is established. Where Howden surprises is in Nix herself as portrayed by Weaving. As the film unfolds, unasked questions are answered, revealing that Nix is as much a victim of Riktor as she is what people think. With each new revelation, the stereotype that once held Nix is shattered and a new designation formed: the creation of a Yin Yang opportunity between herself and Miles. See, Nix isn’t just some psychotic with a bloodlust (she possesses those traits, sure), but she’s more than the lowest-hanging narrative fruit. Through Weaving, especially, Nix becomes a figurehead of strength, self-awareness, and perpetual agency. Unlike Miles who had to be abducted and forced into a situation in order to grow any kind of courage or mettle, Nix embraces the chaos to her advantage, living on her own terms. On paper, Howden walks a fine line between stereotype and personal efficacy, but through another of Weaving’s fantastic performances, the expected bland killer is shown to have surprising layers.
If you’re in the mood for violence, gallows humor, and a balanced representation of both cinematic and realistic gun battles, Guns Akimbo is where it’s at. What could easily be a light-weight, cartoony actionfest ends up being a far richer experience thanks to Howden’s darkly clever subtext and amazing performances from his cast. Radcliffe has made more and more brazenly interesting choices with his projects (have you seen Swiss Army Man?) and this one is no different. He grounds Miles with a vulnerability that nicely rubs up against Mile’s own slowly discovered hypocrisy. Weaving is, as previously stated, an absolute scene-stealer, offering line readings that are almost certainly the most quotable. So if you’re feeling lonely on Friday night, queue up a little chaos and don’t let a few hard truths get you down.
In theaters, VOD, and digital February 28th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.