There will be plenty of reviews of Guns Akimbo (written and directed by Jason Lei Howden) that will lump this action shooter into the dystopian game show genre. Aligning itself with Death Race 2000 (and its sequels and reboots), Rollerball, The Running Man, etc., Guns Akimbo rides the tradition of an everyday nobody thrown into a broadcast death match that plays to a desensitized, stimulation-addicted public. There are also obvious comparisons to the Saw franchise and other horror films premised on a captive forced by active malevolence, circumstance, and physical alteration into acts of horrifying violence.
More attentive critics will not only recognize the myriad references to gaming that Howden harnesses but also see the more sophisticated connection: the movie’s structure largely mirrors the narrative progression of shooter-style video games.
These comparisons are absolutely valid, though mostly obvious. The missing–and most important–contribution of Guns Akimbo might also be an unintentional and inevitable one: this is a movie that does more than almost any other to make explicit the interdependence of the action genre and contemporary video games. Guns Akimbo is a satire, and at moments, it lands solid hits. But it is too disjointed, and its commentary is too far-flung and inconsistent to be truly effective.
Heads up: this review is technically neither a day late nor a dollar short as Guns Akimbo has just been released (Feb. 28, 2020), and I paid a cool $6.99 to rent it, which is $1 more than the typical rental. Thus, this is a Pretty Much On Time and Slightly More Expensive review
As Miles Lee Harris, Daniel Radcliffe is charismatic, funny, and suitably pathetic as a disaffected programmer in a near-future, not-quite-dystopian metropolis. Miles stumbles through his days smashing out code for a forgettable mobile game called Nut Bust 2. His days are passed mostly by fucking around and trying to avoid his abusive boss. At night, Miles spends his hours drinking beer and trolling online trolls, which he views as a public service. Of course, this makes Miles just another anonymous loser/dick.
His dickishness takes a turn for the very, very bad when he trolls Skizm, an organization that streams fight-to-the-death matchups to rabid, stimulation-craving viewers all over the world—Skizm is, essentially, a social network for the bloodthirsty.
Miles is knocked unconscious and kidnapped, waking to find that a pistol has been bolted—yes, bolted—to each hand. The guns are loaded with 50 rounds each, and a digital counter on each one provides a tally of the remaining bullets. These are all Miles will get. Of course, the pistols are the titular guns that must eventually be wielded akimbo, a term that I’m not certain is used properly. The dual wield aesthetic is a fighting style that both action movies and games find irresistibly badass.
Miles is no badass, but his opponent is. Skizm’s leading fighter—“player” may be just as accurate here—is Nix (Samara Weaving). Like nearly every character who is not Miles, this skilled, ultra-violent warrior goes by one name (others are Nova, Zander, Riktor, Hadley, Grim, Fuckface—the last being my obvious favorite of the action movie/video game one-namers). She is introduced in a bloody and frenetically edited montage in which she slaughters a dozen or so opponents on her way to another in a long line of victories.
The plot from here is so predictable–necessarily so–that I need not recount more than this: fight, run, kidnap, team-up, boss fight, sacrifice, victory. And that isn’t bad. In fact, there may be no other way this movie could have gone, given the ouroborean circle of genre and subject. This is a video game masquerading as an action movie about video games. None of the movie, its visuals, characters, dialogue, sets, plot, action sequences could have been any other way–Guns Akimbo has chosen the illusion of free will.
Take, for instance, a scene with Miles and Nix–now working in co-op mode–hunting the big bad, Riktor, who has abducted Miles’s friend. After having dispatched two under-bosses (each with their distinctive weapons, fighting styles, and haircuts), Miles wonders how they will ever find Riktor in this enormous warehouse compound. This is, I believe, the movie’s fourth separate warehouse compound:
Nix: Did you learn nothing from video games? If you see enemies…
Miles (guessing): You jump on their heads, and they give you coins?
Nix: No, fuckwad, it means we’re going the right way.
Or take another warehouse fight, in which the camera trolley follows Nix and Miles as they blast through disposable, masked baddies. The scene scrolls horizontally, passing ladders, balconies, stacks of crates or huge pipes. It is a violent platformer as much as it is a conventional action sequence. The players move in only one direction: toward the boss and the rescue. It’s only missing a large monkey at the top.
I won’t even attempt to catalog all of the references to gaming and gaming culture. There are far more qualified people than I who will do that. But I will say that Howden’s writing and direction, while technically and tonally adept, cannot quite make the leap to a coherent satirical position.
Howden tackles the pervasive inhumanity in social media/game streaming, the casual acceptance of and complicity in horrific representations of violence, and the passive compliance by audiences and creatives to the conventions of the broader action genre. But to do so is also to participate in all those things, and this is the most common downfall of satires of this kind: there is not sufficient separation of satire and subject to provide a true critique.
By the end of Guns Akimbo, every action/shooter box has been meticulously ticked, with the result that the movie is reduced to a profoundly self-aware action movie, but not much more. It’s main success—and I think it’s an important one from a critical perspective—is that it exposes the mutually parasitic relationship between these two massively influential genres.
UPDATE: Just learned this about Howden