Hobo With a Shotgun started life as the winning entry in a mock trailer contest promoting the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature, Grindhouse. Now a few years down the road, HWAS has been turned into a full length film starring Rutger Hauer. Ironically it comprehensively succeeds in beating the overblown and over-budgeted Grindhouse efforts of Tarantino (the dire Death Proof) and Rodriguez (the marginally better Planet Terror) at their own game. HWAS is a pitch perfect tribute to low-rent DTV action exploitation films of the 80s, but without the sort of meta-narrative flim-flammery that has reduced so much current genre filmmaking to the blood-splattered cinematic equivalent of a Stars on 45 medley record.
Like the best exploitation films, Hobo's plot is back-of-a-fag-packet simple. A homeless drifter (Hauer) arrives in Hope Town on the freight train. His only aim in life is to earn enough money begging to afford a second hand-lawnmower and set up his own business – "you grow it, we mow it". Unfortunately, the town is a hellhole ruled over by vicious gangster Drake (Downey, from TV's Lexx) and thuggish sons Slick and Ivan. Drake's motto is "when life hands you razor blades, make a baseball bat covered in razorblades". When Slick tries to take advantage of a young prostitute Abby (Dunsworth), our hobo hero intervenes comprehensively trouncing the young thugs. Hobo dump's Slicks unconscious body at the local police station, demanding the duty sergeant "lock him up with the sodomites, and get me the goddamn chief of police". Unfortunately Drake owns the police like he owns everything else in town, and the Hobo finds himself dumped half dead in a dumpster behind the station.
Rescued and nursed back to health by Abby (who he heartbreakingly seems to be convinced is a teacher) the Hobo decides that Hope Town needs to see some justice. Spending the money he has saved on a pawn store shotgun, he sets out to dispense it "one shell at a time". What we have here is the classic plot of every spaghetti western ever made, transposed to the stylised comic book mean streets of Walter Hill's The Warriors, with the addition The Exterminator's ultra-violence, and the gross-out humour of Street Trash. It all works wonderfully well.
HWAS has been compared to the films of the Troma studio – which, in my opinion, does the film a massive disservice. Although Hobo has the day-glo look and trashy aesthetics of Lloyd Kaufman's bowery-based trash factory, it is genuinely funny beyond the title, something that is not true of Surf Nazis Must Die! Be warned though, the violence is ultra and often played for laughs, and the humour is pitched very dark –exemplified by a paedophile Santa gag. This is the sort of film that will have some people (for example me) doubled over in hysterics, and others wanting the negative burnt. However, behind the sometimes callous humour there are moments of disarming sentimentality that suggest either Eisener or Davies (or both) are also fans of John Woo's The Killer and Bullet in the head. For example, there is a hilarious moment of extreme retribution meted out by the Hobo after an odious street pimp smacks around an underage hooker for trying to do her school homework on the job.
Hauer greatly aids the film by delivering a performance that bleeds compassion from every line in his wonderfully weathered face; the film may be a comic book, but Hauer imbues the most pulpy of dialogue with gravitas. In the film's signature scene delivered to a ward of newborn babes (another Woo reference perhaps) Hauer growls: "I used to be like you. A long time ago. All brand new and perfect. No mistakes, no regrets. People look at you and think of how wonderful your future will be. They want you to be something special, like a doctor, or a lawyer. I hate to tell you this, but if you grow up here, you're more likely to wind up selling your bodies on the streets, or shooting dope from dirty needles in a bus stop. And if you're successful, you'll make money selling junk to crackheads. And don't think twice about killing someone's wife, because you won't even know it's wrong in the first place. Maybe... you'll end up like me. A hobo with a shotgun." Now that is great pulp dialogue right there!
This is a wonderful film, consistently entertaining for its entire length and genuinely funny where so many genre pastiches are not. I can't wait to see it again, I figure as I'm already going to hell for enjoying it once, a rewatch won't make any difference. Four stars pumped in the magazine, one star racked in the chamber, boo-yaa!!!
• This review first appeared on the Chris & Phil Present website