Jason Lei Howden’s directorial debut, Deathgasm, was a fun splatter feature that attempted to tap into the soul of metal music while also being a bloody and funny piece of entertainment. It was most certainly bloody, and meshed with its subject matter by utilizing metal iconography and an overabundance of metal music. In that same vein, Howden’s sophomore feature, Guns Akimbo, also derives much of its stylistic choices from its core subject matter: video games. Where Deathgasm could sometimes feel like a love letter to metal fans and metal as a whole, Guns Akimbo is a juvenile, vitriolic piece of cinema that is so over-stylized that it barely resembles its inspirations, and lacks any substance to be considered entertaining.
Evoking the likes of Ready Player One and The Running Man, Guns Akimbo features an underground televised game of deathmatch called Skizm, where convicts, rapists, and murderers duke it out against each other. It’s illegal, but as with anything illegal like drugs and piracy, it’s also heavily consumed and has become a huge part of the zeitgeist. When game developer Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) trolls the people commenting and watching Skizm, he inadvertently also trolls the leader of the organization. The next morning, he wakes to discover guns bolted to each of his hands, is forced into the game, and is told that his only way to survive is to kill Nix (Samara Weaving), an unkillable legend competitor. With 50 bullets in each gun, Miles is forced into physical conflict instead of hiding behind a keyboard.
That’s it; the whole crux of the film is that a person who makes hateful comments online against despicable people is now forced to kill people. A harsh criticism of trolls? Not really, as Guns Akimbo takes its aims against a character who is described multiple times as “better” than he was before. Even Miles’ ex-girlfriend still kind of likes him, and the only reason she ever remains hesitant appears to be because he has guns as hands now.
Unfortunately, the film wants to explore the idea of internet and video game culture, but has the maturity of a 6 year-old. There are gags in here that are just shy of Uwe Boll or Friedberg and Seltzer-levels of inanity, such as a hungry Miles eating an eight-month old hot dog — which he keeps dropping on the dirty pavement next to a used condom, because he has guns for hands. Having a homeless person (Rhys Darby, who nails just half his jokes, and only because of his delivery) refuse to feed him just serves as another way for the movie to keep reminding the audience.
Where many will find thrills or excitement is in the Guns Akimbo‘s refusal to be stationary even for a second. The camera is moving upside-down, tracking characters, and cutting so quickly that it’s amazing anyone can make out what’s happening at all. It is very clear that Howden wanted to make his own version of Crank 2: High Voltage, but he lacks any sense of rationale behind his directorial decisions. Why is the camera constantly moving upside down immediately after it does some sort of video game-like camera movements? There’s no real justification, because video games don’t move the camera upside down; in fact, they very often refuse to let players do that because things would get incomprehensible. Among the blunders of the camerawork and editing are bits of inspired action that — had they been shot well — would have been exciting. Perhaps the filmmakers should have just gone first-person, as this is essentially just a third-person Hardcore Henry.
The closest that Guns Akimbo comes to being a video game is a synth-heavy score which might as well be done by Perturbator. Video game references and iconography appear all the time, including scenes where rings pop out of Miles when he bumps into someone on the sidewalk (once again, no real purpose other than style), or characters acknowledging that they know they’re heading in the right direction because that way there are bad guys.
The shining star throughout Guns Akimbo is Samara Weaving, who genre fans will already know and adore from movies like Ready or Not or Mayhem. She’s over-the-top and silly, just like all the other characters, but sells it a whole hell of a lot better. Weaving outshines everyone in the film as Nix, with her magnetic charisma and willingness to get down and dirty with all of the blood and gore anyone wants to cover her with. Nix and Miles are the only two with any real arc, but even then, they don’t really arc so much jump to the end by completing a goal. Neither of them are particularly likable either, but Weaving at least brings enough charm to the role that her character is easier to digest.
Guns Akimbo is one of the most juvenile pieces of cinema I’ve seen, reminiscent of this year’s Polar. There will no doubt be people who start touting Howden as an auteur of genre cinema, as he does have a style that is just distinct enough for people to identify it as unique. Yet, Guns Akimbo feels more like a movie made by someone who believes that the only way to entertain someone is to strap a bomb to a character and force them to run. However, if you don’t develop the characters, then no one cares why they’re running, if they run, or what happens if they don’t run. They just know it looks really cool when they run.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15