If you’re looking for vibrant, high-energy midnight material, director Jason Lei Howden has you covered. He first caught my eye with his directorial debut Deathgasm which premiered at SXSW back in 2015 and still to this day, it’s one of my favorite film festival midnight premiere experiences. A four and a half year gap between films is longer than I would have liked but perhaps Guns Akimbo needed it. It’s super ambitious, irresistibly flashy and well worth the wait.
The movie stars Daniel Radcliffe as Miles, a video game developer who takes great pride in “trolling the trolls” online, like those in the comments section of Skizm, an operation that live streams illegal death-matches. Miles catches the attention of the head of Skizm, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), and Riktor decides to force Miles to participate. Miles wakes up to find he’s got guns bolted to his hands and he’s facing off against Skizm’s most deadly competitor, Nix (Samara Weaving).
Guns Akimbo is a ride. We get to spend a little bit of quiet time getting to know Miles at the start of the film, but the moment he comes face to face with Nix, Guns Akimbo launches into one explosive action set piece after the next. Perhaps that could grow tiresome, but not in Howden’s hands. Deathgasm was a darkly delightful metal romp that suggested Howden was one to watch. Guns Akimbo proves it. It’s a confidently directed action thriller packed to the brim with complicated stunts, expertly executed set pieces, and downright stunning lighting schemes. Yes, it’s one shootout after the next backed by familiar songs giving some of them a music video feel, but it’s all a feast for the eyes thanks to Howden’s designs and cinematographer Stefan Ciupek’s dynamic camera work.
It’s also a perfectly cast film. Thanks to Ready or Not, Mayhem and The Babysitter, Weaving has successfully carved out a spot for herself as a badass leading lady. (While also being capable of so much more beyond that. Need proof? Revisit her work in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.) Nix poses a unique challenge for Weaving though because of the importance of presence over dialogue, especially in the first half of the film, and Weaving absolutely owns it. Per usual, she puts her naturally captivating on-screen presence to good use, reveling in Nix’s maniacal confidence in her work. Even when the movie hits a bit of a snag trying to incorporate a little backstory for Nix, Weaving’s intensity and the film’s rip-roaring pace maintain a solid foundation.
Similarly, Dennehy appears to be having a blast sinking his teeth into the madness of Riktor to great effect. The look of the character alone makes a huge impression, but the menace and volatility Dennehy brings to the role makes him even more exciting to track. When it comes to Riktor, however, it’s tough not to want a little more. There’s one curious beat of vulnerability that would have been interesting to explore further and the same goes for the Skizm operation overall. More on the behind-the-scenes of the show would have been a welcomed addition, as would more on Riktor’s desperation to ensure viewership keeps increasing.
As for Radcliffe, Guns Akimbo marks yet another daring success on his resume. He’s made seeing the next Daniel Radcliffe movie a special kind of treat as someone who’s willing to go big and take chances on unique material. With Guns Akimbo, Howden is going for a highly specific style and tone which makes it especially vital for Radcliffe to be just as precise with his work. Miles is a non-stop talker and Radcliffe nails one beat after the next ranging from the bumbling comedy of the guns being bolted to his hands, to a genuine chemistry with his ex Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), selling Miles’ evolution into a capable hero who’s a thrill to root for, and more.
Thankfully nothing like Skism exists today, but we do live in a world inundated with reality competition shows and also where many have their heads buried in computers and phones every waking hour of the day. That alone could make Guns Akimbo a scenario that’ll stay on your mind well after the movie wraps up, but Howden’s script does stick to skimming the surface of those themes and ideas in favor of the action. One could make the style over substance argument and Guns Akimbo certainly isn’t for everyone, but personally, I can’t say no to an expertly crafted thrill that’ll electrify a midnight crowd, encouraging viewers to believe in and rooting for an unlikely hero. Howden is the real deal and it’s only a matter of time before more take notice.