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Guns Akimbo

Guns Akimbo is an action romp in which Daniel Radcliffe goes through the entire movie with pistols bolted to his hands. If that’s not enough to sell you on this film, you should probably adjust your standards. Even so, while that’s one hell of a fantastic hook, there’s a lot more to this movie beyond the surface-level description. So let’s dig in, shall we?

The center of the premise is Skizm, an underground and highly illegal kind of online Fight Club in which the bloodthirstiest dregs of society hunt and murder each other for the enjoyment of the viewing audience. This is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of premise — Nerve comes immediately to mind — but this movie fares better than most because the filmmakers actually demonstrate some working knowledge of online culture. Of course (again, I’m looking at you, Nerve), it helps that Skizm has consistent rules and a centralized power structure just plausible enough for suspension of disbelief. In this case, Skizm is run by a tatted-up psychopath named Riktor (Ned Dennehy).

Radcliffe plays Miles Lee Harris, a put-upon code monkey working for one of those cute mobile games that baits the players into one micro-transaction after another. He’s an asthmatic and a weakling who’s socially inept and spineless in the real world, but he’s got a black belt in taking down social media trolls. Eventually, Miles finds his way onto Skizm — which is of course Ground Zero for the worst of the worst online trolls — and starts putting down every last one of the sick immoral fucks who watches people blow each other up live on the internet.

Then Skizm finds Miles through his IP address. I guess the self-titled professional online troll hunter had never heard of a fucking VPN. Idiot.

Anyway, Riktor and his goons pound down Miles’ door, drug the guy, and then bolt a couple of pistols to his hands, each with 50 bullets. So now Miles has to relearn how to dress himself, how to eat, how to use his smartphone, how to open a door… really, he’s pretty much incapable of doing anything now that he doesn’t have any working digits anymore.

Oh, and did I mention that Miles is an asthmatic? Yeah, he can’t even breathe without his inhaler, which he has to relearn how to use without shooting his own head off. And of course it gets even worse.

Skizm has forced Miles into a deathmatch, livestreaming online for all the murder junkies out there. His opponent: Nix (meteoric up-and-comer Samara Weaving), easily the most successful and popular “contestant” in Skizm’s history. I might add that Nix is a coke-fueled, foul-mouthed, misanthropic, gleefully violent homicidal nutjob. Seriously, she makes Harley freaking Quinn look like Lois Lane.

Further complicating matters is that if Nix wins this one last deathmatch, she’s out of Skizm for good. If Miles wins, he gets to live. I might add that Skizm never promised that Nix could walk away alive, nor did they ever promise to take the guns out of Miles’ hands.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Miles only has a hundred bullets to work with. He can’t reload his weapons or use anything other than his two pistols because — again — they’re freaking bolted to his hands. As if an out-of-shape programmer going up against a lifelong cutthroat wasn’t at enough of a disadvantage.

There’s also the matter of Miles’ ex (Nova, played by Natasha Liu Bordizzo). She acts as a kind of grounding rod, a more mundane character to contrast against the madness of Skizm-world, right up until she gets herself kidnapped as motivation for the protagonist. I hasten to add that even after she gets captured, Nova’s still highly proactive in getting herself rescued, slowing down the bad guys, and helping out the main character in any way she can. Nicely done.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Degraves and Stanton (respectively played by Grant Bowler and Edwin Wright), two cops who’ve been chasing after Nix for the past several years. They eventually find out that they can get to Nix through Miles, thus complicating matters even further. That’s as much as I dare spoil here.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rhys Darby, here playing a homeless man as a motivational comic relief like only he could. Seriously, every movie shot in New Zealand could be better with a Rhys Darby supporting turn. Even the Lord of the Rings films would’ve been so much better if Darby had put in a speaking cameo as Fatty Bolger or something. I digress.

The filmmakers lean heavily on video games and social media, yanking iconography from and offering commentary on both. Yet the filmmakers are primarily interested in them as cases in point for a far broader, more timeless, more universal theme: Violence.

At its very heart and core, this is a movie about a harmless man learning how to survive in a dangerous world without sinking to the level of those who are making it more dangerous. It’s about a pacifist who has to learn when violence is necessary, learning how and why to fight back when the time comes. The development arc is made even more compelling opposite that of Nix, who has to learn when not to fight or kill. The two complement each other surprisingly well, though of course it helps that Radcliffe and Weaving are two remarkable talents hitting their stride.

On every implicit and explicit level, this is very much a movie about our innate need for conflict. From a bare-knuckle brawl to a pointless social media flame war, there’s this strange inherent thrill in any conflict, and an addictive rush of superiority that comes with winning… well, anything, to some extent.

But of course it’s the action you all came for. And it’s beautifully batshit. The camera movements, the editing, the speed-ramping, the colors, the choreography, the music… every aspect blends together into a kickass feast for the senses. I can’t even call it a symphony — this is a heavy metal concert rocking into 2 AM, with hundreds in the mosh pit fueled by Red Bull and angel dust. It’s incredible fun to sit through.

Speaking of which, I loved the music. A soundtrack full of cover songs may not sound terribly thrilling, but the songs are eclectic and placed for maximum effect. The covers of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” and “Ballroom Blitz” are especially great.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, the pacing is a bit wonky in spots, with a couple of minor plot cul-de-sacs. There’s also the matter of the entire third act, which might have been a lot more awesome if it wasn’t all predicated on a single glaringly obvious plot hole. Spoilers forbid me from going into detail, but suffice to say a certain meeting shouldn’t have been possible in Skizm-world, where every contestant is under 24-hour drone surveillance.

And then of course there’s the elephant in the room. I won’t go into details about the whole sordid saga, but suffice to say that writer/director Jason Lei Howden got himself embroiled in a massive social media brouhaha in which nobody came out looking like a hero. Everyone involved was an asshole, on all sides. It was such a massive sprawling controversy that allegedly, it threatened to cancel the film entirely.

As a rule of thumb, I only care about filmmakers’ personal lives to the extent that it affects the final product I’m paying to watch. In this case, when I see a film about assholes on social media and it’s being made by a guy who publicly acted like an asshole on social media, it raises certain questions.

For example, Miles’ viral stardom increases dramatically throughout the picture, as more and more Skizm viewers start cheering him on. Even when Miles’ victory means that Skizm would effectively cease to exist. The viewers are actively cheering against their own self-interest, and the point is never once brought up. I’m curious to know why that went unexplored, and what point Howden might have been trying to make about social media junkies.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s at least one point when Miles is screaming at the Skizm cameras, calling out how this whole show is disgusting and everyone who takes part in it is sick. The audience responds by laughing and sneering to the screen. Riktor himself responds that Miles is no different — even if Miles was only on the Skizm boards to troll the other users, he is nonetheless just another troll like so many others.

And again, this is coming from a filmmaker who went on Twitter to complain about “cancel culture” and “woke cyberbullies.” From that perspective, how are we supposed to feel about our protagonist? Did Howden really intend for us to side with the murderous livestreaming fuckwits?

At the end of the day, Guns Akimbo is purely a matter of taste. For all the surrounding controversy and its discussions about violence and online entertainment, this is a action comedy with a wickedly crude sense of humor. It loves dirty jokes, it loves ultraviolence, and its only setting is “over-the-top”. Not everyone has such a juvenile sense of humor, and that’s okay.

Me personally, I loved it. As a fan of Edgar Wright’s style (most especially Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, still my all-time favorite movie), I couldn’t get enough of the colorful hyperkinetic style and the fast-paced humor (even if the cruder jokes grated at times). Also, I’m the guy who holds every modern action film to the standard of John Wick, and Shoot ‘Em Up is still my all-time favorite actioner — fearless and inventive action flicks that gleefully accept the challenge of finding new ways to make people suffer are totally my bag.

I strongly suggest checking it out, just to see if it’s to your taste. And again, Daniel Radcliffe goes through the entire film with pistols strapped to his hands — even if you hate the film, where else are you ever going to see that?!

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