Home » ‘Guns Akimbo’ is Half-Cocked Tedium Devoid of Empathy

‘Guns Akimbo’ is Half-Cocked Tedium Devoid of Empathy

by Declan Biswas-Hughes

Having been caught in the thrall of Harry Potter for all of the 2000s, it shouldn’t be surprising that after I saw Daniel Radcliffe perform in the Cripple of Inishmaan in 2013, I dutifully stood outside the Noel Coward Theatre hoping to receive his autograph. I failed miserably, because everyone else had the same compunction. That was the first night. I went back the next day and stood backstage for four hours in the rain, because I have yet to see anyone convey the pain and muscle tension of having Cerebral Palsy as keenly as Daniel Radcliffe. I got to tell him that — he seemed genuinely pleased with the compliment — and had several photos taken with him. After The Cripple of Inishmaan, I was pretty convinced that Daniel Radcliffe could perform any role acutely. Fast forward seven years, and we have the oddity that is Guns Akimbo, a film almost worth seeing for Radcliffe’s commitment to portraying a cynical game developer haplessly trying to survive a death match he’s been forced to participate in.

There’s a certain virtue to blunt messaging; it can bring clarity. However, the scattershot targets of condemnation presented in Guns Akimbo robs the film of whatever thematic potency it might have had exploring a Hobbesian destructive State of Nature in the Internet Age.

You can see the appeal for Daniel Radcliffe choosing Guns Akimbo: the protagonist, Miles Harris, allows Radcliffe to exercise both his awkward, stuttering comedy persona and the progressive breakdown of a snivelling coward hopelessly out of his depth. It’s solid dramatic fodder for an actor, and Radcliffe gives it his all, in one monologue unleashing Miles’ rage and pain against his oppressive boss saying, “You put me down every time I come through that door.”

Miles undergoes a transformation.

It’s the extreme transformation Miles undergoes that fits into Radcliffe’s eclectic post-Potter oeuvre. For example, Jungle had Radcliffe physically lose weight to reflect Yossi Ghinsberg’s harrowing ordeal trying to survive in Amazon rainforest, but its Radcliffe’s portrayal — shifting from wide-eyed, naïve wonder and enthusiasm to ambiguous disdain, emotional manipulation of friends, and curt pragmatism, then finally desperate madness — that gives Jungle its Lord of the Flies-like quality. Similarly, Kill Your Darlings convinces us of Lucien Carr’s (Dane DeHaan) hollow appeal and fascinating capriciousness through Radcliffe’s curious enamourment as Allen Ginsberg. The growing disillusionment and the bundle of dismay, sadness, and hurt are acutely performed with the smallest of gestures. The aura of steeled ruthlessness by Radcliffe when he sees Carr in jail in the final moments is withering. And Radcliffe’s transformation of humanising a corpse in Swiss Army Man is self-explanatory.

Miles is another character who undergoes significant shifts, but it’s only through Daniel Radcliffe that any of it feels remotely genuine. Radcliffe imbues the cocksure “keyboard warrior” with an undercurrent of impotent frustration at his dead-end work and love life, and though Miles degenerates into fear as the body count racks up, he increasingly appears more resolved. The emotional tension of those juxtaposing feelings is something Radcliffe has become adept at over the years. The success of Imperium entirely turns on Radcliffe’s ability to marry conflicting emotions, particularly Nate Foster’s horror at his own commitment to maintaining the guise of being a white supremacist. Miles’ emotional conflict in Guns Akimbo is nothing quite as severe (despite the life or death scenario), but Radcliffe embodies the character with aplomb. To add to the mix, Radcliffe also gets a few meta-textual and irreverent voice-overs at the beginning that could lull one into thinking for half a minute that this will be something like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

But it’s not enough to overcome the sheer lack of cohesive artistry on display, as Guns Akimbo betrays its true qualities immediately. Ned Dennehy’s villain, Riktor, appears as a floating digitalised head, looking like a demon-eyed version of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhatten. This is undoubtedly Riktor’s best look; he spends the rest of the movie with a face covered in the leftover tattoos that evidently couldn’t fit on Jared Leto’s Joker. Riktor’s floating head scorns the audience in exaggerated, hushed tones: “You sit at your computers, liking pictures of smiling babies, sharing inspirational quotes, but what you really want to see is death. You click on horrific news headlines, violence, destruction, terrorism, war, because it makes your shitty lives seem that little bit less shitty… Want to go viral? Skizm is the virus.”

Setting aside the giant logical leap from enjoying asinine positivity to filling the void in one’s life with vicarious violence, and the groanworthy viral/virus wordplay, the simple contempt for the audience’s intelligence and absent subtlety in this speech echo across the film in all facets. Skizm, by the way, is the brand name of the death match. As Miles describes, “The worst side of humanity on show. So the internet fucking loved it.”

There’s a certain virtue to blunt messaging; it can bring clarity. However, the scattershot targets of condemnation presented in Guns Akimbo robs the film of whatever thematic potency it might have had exploring a Hobbesian destructive State of Nature in the Internet Age.

If there is an attempt at consistent messaging, it’s that rampant consumerism and valuing internet engagement solely on the basis of entertainment breeds a lack of empathy and appreciation for the pain others receive. The film regularly and ham-fistedly cuts to various viewers watching the Skizm stream while swearing at competitors for not being entertaining. At one point, Miles appears to be shot dead, and one person is upset while his friend exclaims, “It’s just a game, bro!”

This isn’t exactly an extrapolation. There are many examples of internet callousness in reality, from school cyberbullying to the anonymous criticisms of celebrities for minutiae. However, the film immediately mocks Miles for his role in trolling the trolls, so to speak — the same people who persist in frivolously delivering the same pernicious and malicious digital harm that Miles later rails against in a poor imitation of Network’s climatic monologue. It is true that Miles hits back against anti-vaxxers and racists out of impulsive, self-aggrandising thoughts of being “hero” rather than sincere belief, and that’s odious in its own way. Perhaps Guns Akimbo is making a point about the fruitlessness of internet screed and that intent matters, no matter the socio-political position of the commentator relative to social mores. But there is no incisiveness, nothing beyond mild inference.

Miles fearing death.

For a while, the film potentially floats the idea of a perpetuated circle of violence being an issue, that rampantly capitalistic endeavours may be a cancer to both law and society, or the pursuit of stardom is hollow, but it dispatches these concepts with the same gunshots and bloody beatings. Guns Akimbo isn’t focused enough to give death thematic punctuation. The apathetic ambiguity gives way to meaninglessness. By process of literal elimination, the film’s ending ultimately suggests its thesis, above all else, is that the internet is bad because it exploits Man’s nature, and must be destroyed with brute force. The rest of the movie’s inartfulness leads me to believe this isn’t a metaphor. Great.

I recognise that there is an irony in vehemently dissing the film in what is hopefully a more acerbic manner than Miles’ attempts to be a “fucking Terminator” (“You people are the worst degenerate scum. Go to hell.”). But Guns Akimbo can surely forgive me for being self-aware while indulging all the same, because the film constantly pays lip-service to better storytelling, or lampshading certain retrograde concepts while continuing worn traditions and tropes.

Miles’ voiceover assures the audience “Look don’t worry, okay, this is not another story about a nerd trying to get the girl like she’s an Xbox achievement to be unlocked. This is not a love story.” It’s not a love story, but Miles’ ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), fulfills the typical role of the supportive-but-kidnapped loved one. Honestly, the near-total extraction of a romantic component is to the film’s detriment, because all of Miles’ interpersonal connections are limited or simply underseen, and yet emotional moments are regularly steeped in his supposed relationships. Thus, whatever sense of personal growth or loss Miles feels as a result of empathy in no way translates to pathos for the audience.

Nix in leather.

This is not limited to Miles. Nix (Samara Weaving), the undefeated Skizm champion Miles is tasked with killing, was driven criminally insane (she escaped from a maximum security prison at thirteen) by the death of her mother and siblings in an arson attack, but if we’re meant to feel anything from this backstory, or the fact that her dad dies trying to bring her home, Guns Akimbo is flippant enough that these life-altering events barely register. One would hope that there would be a little more interest in the character Guns Akimbo has time to give two introduction sequences, but alas. For Guns Akimbo, Nix is just a cocaine fiend clad in hot-chick studded black leather, shooting grenade launchers and yelling asinine lines like, “Suck my clit!” Oh no, wait, she also overcomes her fear of fire apparently, in time to be engulfed in flames. This is filmed in slow-motion, and meant to appear self-empowering.

Returning to the notion of empathy for suffering, Guns Akimbo really tries to have it both ways. For all its chastising of people passively embracing violence, the film luxuriates in lurid gore and blood — poorly filmed gore and blood, at that. Guns Akimbo might have benefited from this recent renaissance in staging clear action, but its frenetic pacing and editing of scenes only make the shaky action seem as if they came from the lesser Jason Bourne film offerings. With neon lighting and a design aesthetic cribbed from the notorious Suicide Squad‘s marketing (it even has a fight scene with a synthesised version of The Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” in the background), the action is senselessly nauseating ad nauseam.

Suicide Squad marketing

That’s the action side of the action-comedy. The comedy is worse. For all the physical comedy potential of having guns for hands, Guns Akimbo always falls just shy of making the endless fumbling funny, cutting away before anything can escalate. Rhys Darby as a vagrant has the only thing approaching a good, suitably macabre joke about pointing a gun at the correct angle to blow one’s brains out. He almost gets a second good joke talking about Miles assumptions: “For all you know, I could be a savant programmer who got screwed after my start-up went bust.” Here, Guns Akimbo‘s ambivalence towards empathy betrays it again: “What? No! I spend all of my time getting fucked up on a bunch of crack.” For emphasis, he continues, “Wanna smoke some crack?” The absurdity could have been funnier in a film better in control of its tone, but in Guns Akimbo it’s another dud and just sounds cruel.

Rhys Darby as a homeless tramp.

With Guns Akimbo’s glib and dumb script, all that remains is for the film to be a showreel for every film angle and shot director Jason Lei Howden has ever conceived of or seen. In the mishmash there is a good one: a camera in the position of a sniper scope. The video game first-person perspective might have generally worked had the camera not seemingly escaped the hands of director of photography Stefan Ciupek and needlessly twirled about and upside down. If the basic function of selecting shots is to cleanly convey the principle action to the audience on-screen, then Howden boldly chooses to do the opposite of that, superfluously choosing odd camera angles with none of the skill to make them worthwhile. I think my least favourite was a tracking shot that crosses an entire lake as Miles runs along the path towards his ex-girlfriend only to end with the principle subjects nearly off-camera. This is symptomatic of the staggering lack of technical coherence in Guns Akimbo, in a way that defies any claim of intentional, creative disorientation.

This is not a natural ending point, but I’m stopping things here. I’m tired of contemplating this movie. Goomba Stomp has reviewed it before at TIFF. It was terrible then, and it’s still bad now. There has been too much fruitless dissection for a film that doesn’t deserve it. Nothing much in Guns Akimbo works. Not even the source of the title is worth anything: Miles is told that “They’re calling you ‘Guns Akimbo’” by a girl who helps hack Nova’s phone to track her down. I think. I forgot to make a precise note regarding this, and I’m not re-watching. Guns Akimbo has a great, evocative title, but it’s a shame about the thing it’s attached to. This film is a mess, lacking wit, compassion, and style. It is a long, boring 90-odd minutes. If you want to watch Daniel Radcliffe in a film, see something else.

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