We lead off this week with Dirty Harry, textbook of Vigilantism 101 and Holy Grail of imitators for four decades. Your chaser, Hobo with a Shotgun, is part of that long line: the artillery may be heavier and the language coarser, but it’s a clear graduate of the Clint Eastwood School of Policecraft and Weaponry. It doesn’t go down as easy as promised — sort of like the night’s fifth tequila shot — but hopefully this inaugural column will. I guess the question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I feel lucky?” Well do ya, punk?
You can’t see his face, obscured as it is by the barrel of his gun. His sights linger on a young woman treading water in a rooftop pool. He lingers long enough, in fact, to have you half convinced your premonition was wrong.
Then he shoots her.
Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), like its first frames, is an anxious film: anxious about the Scorpio serial killer (Andy Robinson) taking down innocents from assorted vantages in order to extort the City of San Francisco out of $200,000; anxious, like cinematic brethren The French Connection and Taxi Driver, about crime-wracked, decrepit cities and the morally bankrupt people who inhabit them. Enter Clint Eastwood as Inspector Harry Callahan, lustily vengeful yet otherwise fully composed. In his dark sunglasses and longish brown hair, sporting a slim gray suit to complement his loping gait, he seems almost debonair. This is James Bond for the Moral Majority.
Eastwood, unsurprisingly, carries the movie. Here and in the films of Sergio Leone, he practically trademarked alpha-male ciphers like Callahan, throwing in just enough knowing grins with grim purposefulness to stave off self-righteousness. In one great set piece that has nothing to do with the plot, he is called on to talk down a jumper; he proceeds to goad the guy into jumping him, knocks him unconscious with one good thwack on the nose, and carries him down in a fire engine’s crane. This is what the Eastwood of old was for: the merest hint of physical comedy to lighten up the proceedings, as though Groucho Marx found himself in a Fritz Lang picture.
No worries about pop psychology here. Harry’s desperate vigilantism is left largely unexplored, something about his wife being killed by a drunk driver in a throwaway line 12 minutes from the end credits. He fits right in, then, with the empty anarchy of the city — littered with trash, full of tunnels and underpasses, leached of nearly all color except for the red of the villain’s mask. It would be the perfect setting for an old-fashioned potboiler of the Marlowe variety, helped along by Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, jittery score, buzzing in the background like a subway musician.
Too bad, then, that so much of the film has aged so badly. It relegates all but the white, straight policemen to the unsightly role of Street Vermin #4. Women in particular are treated badly: those that do appear are usually naked, dead, or both. Even at the core of the narrative, the crackling anxiety of the opening scene melts away. Scorpio is too far out in the open, too histrionic, to be this hard to catch, so rather than seething and sparking, the many chases and escapes fall flat. By the time the most harrowing moment arrives, a chilling school bus rendition of “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” that alone makes the other 90 minutes worth watching, it feels like just another set piece, dropped in whole from a better movie.
Unlike Dirty Harry, Hobo with a Shotgun (Jason Eisener, 2011) is a Technicolor dreamcoat, a hallucination in electric blue and brain-spatter red. Based on a fake Canadian trailer that won Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse contest at South by Southwest a few years back, Hobo screams where Harry slinks. It is anxiety-producing only in the mode of, say, car alarms and jackhammers.
The quick and dirty rundown: an unnamed hobo (Rutger Hauer) lands in Hope Town, only to witness the orgiastic violence of a crime boss named Drake (Brian Downey) and his two sons, Ivan and Slick (Nick Bateman and Gregory Smith). Looking wizened under his wool cap, scraggly gray whiskers, and the patina of a good bender, the hobo buys a pawnshop shotgun to set things right. Along the way, he befriends a hooker with a heart of gold named Abby (Molly Dunsworth).
This is, one assumes, meant to play as campy good fun. For all the grisly action, however, Hobo with a Shotgun never builds any momentum. Hope Town may be a place where you can earn a few bucks by letting someone videotape your self-mutilation and carnival-goers line up for competitive torture, but a series of disembowelings does not a movie make. The over-the-top torture-porn aspect isn’t what irks — Tarantino, a clear influence, used a (somewhat) lighter touch with vivid cartoon violence and ended up creating the dazzling Kill Bill, Vol. 1. To put it bluntly, Hobo is boring.
The few exceptions are mainly attributable to costume designer Sarah Dunsworth. The way-out-there clothes have a wacky humor that is actually clever instead of ironically, self-consciously “clever”: to wit, Ivan and Slick stomp around in Brat Pack uniforms, including white varsity jackets, pomaded hair, and black Ray-Ban Wayfarers. In the best scene, Abby wades through an angry mob dressed like a roller derby girl straight out of a smelting plant, wielding a weaponized law mower.
Hobo with a Shotgun ends up making Harry Callahan look like Atticus Finch (and Don Siegel like Fritz Lang). Tellingly, it apes the one scene in the earlier film that really sticks in the mind. Hobo’s school bus scene is equally troubling, albeit for different reasons. It won’t ruin it for you, utterly lacking in suspense as it is, to tell you that Slick and Ivan torch the bus with a dozen kids inside. As Slick sets the kiddies alight, Ivan, in dim homage to John Cusack in Say Anything, holds up a boom box playing, predictably, “Disco Inferno.”
“Burn, baby, burn” is right. I only wish they had done the same thing with the dailies.