Film Review – Guns Akimbo
Well, I got to give Daniel Radcliffe this credit: he sure picks interesting projects.
Since leaving the Harry Potter franchise in 2011, Radcliffe has taken a very deliberate approach in trying to shed the boy wizard image. This includes physical efforts such as growing horns (Horns, 2013) and playing a corpse (Swiss Army Man, 2016). His latest effort – Guns Akimbo (2020) – features him wielding dual handguns strapped and nailed to his hands. That, suffice to say, is a bold choice.
Writer/director Jason Lei Howden – who last gave us the Deathgasm (2015) – isn’t one for subtlety. This is a hyperkinetic, flashy, and overly stylized action comedy that basks in its bloody violence. The camera spins and zooms and twirls with such free-flowing movement that we wonder if it is mounted to any kind of rig or if it was simply tossed around in the air. There is no question that there is non-stop energy throughout the narrative. It is constantly moving – the premise alone is enough to have us stick around and see what transpires. But that’s all Guns Akimbo has to offer: pacing.
Sure, there are ideas and themes introduced. The one most touched on is society’s obsession with trash TV. Reality game shows and onscreen violence are used to feed an audience’s need for entertainment. In this universe, a deadly gang known as “Skizm” run a highly popular online reality show where contestants engage in gladiatorial battles to the death right on city streets. The action is captured with drones and streamed online. During action scenes, we get numerous cuts to random viewers watching and cheering on like fans during a sporting event.
Enter Miles (Radcliffe), a lazy and immature video game designer who spends the majority of his time on the couch trolling internet message boards with vile comments. Miles takes things too far when his bad mouthing of Skizm causes them to show up at his doorstep. The gang promptly knocks him out, attaches the guns to his hands, and forces him to be the next contestant on their show, going head to head with the current reigning champ: the gun toting, missile launching badass Nix (Samara Weaving).
This set up induces a myriad of questions. How is Skizm organized? Where do they get the funding to keep this operation running? How do they allow these deadly shootouts to happen in broad daylight with no ramifications? Where are the authorities to stop them? It’s hard not to laugh when you see a character dressed in leather, mugging for the camera like a supervillain, telling their underlings to “Cut to Camera 1…Switch to Camera 3!” as though they were a director at some local news station.
The biggest issue with Guns Akimbo is that it does the complete opposite of what it tries to satirize. Howden and his team conjure up this world and deadly reality show with the implication that modern audiences have a taste for trashy escapism – that the malaise over technology, cell phones, computers, and a constant info stream can only be quenched by the most extreme of distractions, i.e. death games. To a degree, there is some truth to that. But the satire falls apart when the action shown here revels in the brutality. This isn’t like Battle Royale (2000) or The Hunger Games (2012). Say what you will about the quality of those films, but at least both took a firm position against the mayhem. Guns Akimbo does not do that – it fetishizes the bloodletting with its slow mo shots of bullets penetrating skulls with a blaring soundtrack crushing our eardrums. It plays like Kick-Ass (2010) in how it tries to lampoon violence only to end up celebrating it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with showing action simply for action sake, but in this instance the tone of what we see and theme that’s being presented don’t fit well.
Radcliffe turns in a commendable performance. The added challenge of having props attached to his hands does make for some funnier bits of slapstick. Everyday activities from making phone calls, driving a car, to just putting his pants on look like a Herculean effort. His character toes the line of empathy. While having your hands severely damaged is – obviously – something we would never want to happen, Miles isn’t the most likable character when we first meet him. He’s constantly late for work, doesn’t appreciate his girlfriend Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and has an online personality that is downright despicable. Maybe this is Howden’s way of giving internet trolls a taste of their own medicine. He created a scenario where one of them gets pulled out of the safety of their computer screen and placed in a real world video game. It’s wish fulfillment laced with adrenaline.
The disappointment of Guns Akimbo is in seeing the potential and finding that the film did not meet it. It’s not enough to suggest themes without exploring them all the way through – it leaves us feeling empty and dissatisfied. It’s like playing a video game that tries to teach us how bad video games are. Does that make sense? Of course it doesn’t. Neither does this.