Guns Akimbo (2019)
In a scuzzy nearish future, computer geek Miles Lee Harris (Daniel Radcliffe) runs afoul of ruthless cyber-criminal Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who heads a kind of pirate signal online fightclub called Skizm, which is basically a riff on The Running Man (1987). As you might expect, our man Miles finds himself unwillingly drafted into the game and forced to wage urban gladiatorial combat or die. To make sure he can’t back out, a pistol is literally bolted to each of his hands, with gnarly-looking metal screws driven through his palms and fingers. To make sure he’s utterly doomed, he’s pitted against riot grrl killing machine Nix (Samara Weaving and really, the best reason to see this thing), Skizm’s MVP. And we’re off and running.
The director of Guns Akimbo, Jason Lei Howden, Deathgasm (2015), recently failed to cover himself in glory when he lashed out at online film critics for perceived bullying, and it turned into a whole thing. Hit those links for explanations and analyses far more insightful and engaged than anything I could bring to bear on the matter at hand, and if, having read up, you don’t feel like getting his work up in your grill, no harm, no foul.
All other considerations aside, Howden’s meltdown has probably crippled his film and possibly his career going forward, which is a damn shame, as Guns Akimbo is a brisk, anarchic little actioner that does a lot with very little, stretching an obviously tight budget to present a robust, lived-in cyberpunk dystopia and exploring it with a propulsive storyline and style that never idles long enough for us to wonder at some of the assumptions underpinning its fictional world. It is, however, sometimes a little too edgy for edgy’s sake, and it’s hard not to look at those elements of the film in light of its creator’s recent online behavior and yeesh a little bit.
But no, let’s accentuate the positive instead. A frenetic, willfully tasteless and at times obnoxious amoral actioner, Guns Akimbo’s most obvious cinematic antecedent is Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Crank (2006), which saw Jason Statham as a hitman forced to undertake a number of death-defying feats in an effort to keep his poisoned heart from stopping — a silly but serviceable narrative reason to keep upping the action over the course of its running time. The same duo’s later, less successful film, Gamer (2009), presages Guns Akimbo’s grounding in internet culture, while the OTT bullet ballet action aesthetic doesn’t so much recall vintage John Woo Hong Kong flicks, but Michael Davis’ 2007 Woo pastiche Shoot ‘Em Up. Take that deliberately overclocked approach and this film’s office-drone-to-bad-ass character arc, and you’re immediately reminded of Russian director Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted (2008), in which James McAvoy’s character trod a similar path. Australian director Maziar Lahooti’s low budget black comedy Below (2019), in which detention center guards force inmates to fight for an online audience is a more low key take on the illegal streaming combat notion, and Guns Akimbo’s use of recurring audience members watching the action as a kind of Greek Chorus is a lift from Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998).
All of which is to say that there are a lot of different meats in Guns Akimbo’s cultural stew, and you could stretch the metaphor to include something about ‘strong flavors,’ too. This is a feature, not a bug; Howden wears his influences on his sleeve, and so his film is like a 12-inch dance mix of all those movies he was clearly watching in the late 2000s (look at the dates — that’s quite a cluster. Chalk it up to Robert Rodriguez’s hyper-stylized Sin City casting a long shadow from its 2005 release date).
But, to paraphrase Sam Peckinpah, ‘it’s the way you blow up a bridge that counts,’ and Howden’s sense of style is impressive. Realism is not a design goal here, but rather putting together an onscreen world redolent of a thousand FPS games and ’90s-vintage cyberpunk action thrillers — GTA meets Johnny Mnemonic (1995). The cast are, to coin a phrase, game. Radcliffe continues his post-Harry Potter ‘whatever the fuck I feel like doing’ run of outre role choices, while Ned Dennehy, Mandy (2018), gurns and glowers effectively as the tattooed and depilated Riktor, a villain not a million miles away from Craig Conway’s Sol in Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008 and yes, my thesis is getting stronger by the minute). Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby, Jumanji: The Next Level (2019), crops up as a homeless crack addict/ sage mentor; Australian Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Hotel Mumbai (2018), does duty as Miles’ ex-girlfriend, Nova, basically here to be kidnapped by the bad guys, and Blue Heelers’ Grant Bowler is suitably stone-faced as a cop caught up in the whole mess.
But the MVP is Samara Weaving, whose turn as the psychotic, playful, ruthless Nix is one for the books. I’ve previously written about Weaving’s emergence as a genre cinema mainstay, and with Guns Akimbo, the point still stands. Indeed, the iconic image of the film isn’t Radcliffe in his dressing gown and furry slippers haplessly waving his gun-hands but Weaving in heart-shaped sunglasses mowing down thugs with a minigun. There’s a whole backstory that explains why Nix, who, in reality, is a wonderfully nihilistic murderess, is the way she is, but really it’s all about the image, a whole cinéma du look thing, and Howden shoots Weaving perfectly. The surface is all; depth is an illusion.
And while Howden never quite hits the extremes of visual stylization as, say, early Luc Besson (another clear influence), he does understand — or, if you’re feeling uncharitable, perhaps his understanding stops at the notion — that often just seeing cool shit on the screen is enough, that scratching the atavistic action itch will satisfy your audience on a very base level, and doing that well is in and of itself artful. Guns Akimbo very much operates at that level, and if you’ve had fun with the various films that have influenced it, odds are good you’ll enjoy yourself here, too.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson