The course of an acting career can vividly illustrate the randomness of fate. Rutger Hauer spent some years in Dutch experimental theater of the 1960s — after pulling off that best way to terminate one's military service, faking mental illness — then became a local heartthrob as a medieval knight in a hit TV series at that decade's end.
He spent the 1970s primarily starring in Dutch movies, notably the striking early films of Paul Verhoeven — well before Showgirls (1995), Starship Troopers (1997), or even 1987's RoboCop (the director wanted Hauer for the lead, but was overruled by the studio). In the 1980s, Hauer played the memorable villains of Blade Runner (1982), The Hitcher (1986), and 1981's Nighthawks (inducing tough investigative cop Sylvester Stallone to don drag at the end to catch him), between runs at being an action hero and theoretically loftier assignments around the globe.
Then he settled into a multilingual journeyman's potluck of low-budget genre features, TV projects, small parts in mainstream films (2005's Sin City and Batman Begins), Guinness commercials, and a Kylie Minogue video. Apparently 67-year-old Dutch actors in Los Angeles can't be choosy.
Then again, sometimes better opportunities might choose them. At Sundance this January, Hauer played lead roles in two diametrically opposed movies. One was as the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Polish director Lech Majewski's extraordinary The Mill and the Cross (recently at the San Francisco International Film Festival), which brings one of that painter's most epic canvases to cinematic life and will hopefully open on U.S. art house screens later this year. The other was Hobo With a Shotgun. Guess which one is opening theatrically here already.
Hobo began as a $150 faux-trailer short that got considerable exposure online and off. The resulting long-form debut for director Jason Eisener and scenarist John Davies is doubtless the zenith in Halifax, Nova Scotia-shot retro ’ploitation splatter comedies to date. Which tells you nothing, of course. But it is pretty good — not great — insofar as spoofy gross-out nods to yesteryear's exploitation cinema go. Better than Machete (2010), a whole lot better than the likes of Zombie Strippers! (2008) or 95 percent of what Troma puts out.
Grizzled Hauer stars as the titular character who rides rails into an equally nameless berg nicknamed "Fuck Town" because it's so plagued by drugs ’n' thugz. The hoodlums are led by crime kingpin "The Drake" (Brian Downey) and goon sons (Gregory Smith, Nick Bateman) whose violent perversities are Caligula-licious. With corrupt police force in pocket, they're free to terrorize the populace via acts of degradation and violence pushed over the bad-taste top and then some.
When Hauer's hobo rescues a prostitute (Molly Dunsworth) from this clan's clutches, he trips his own mental wire from peaceably detached transient to pawnshop-armed streetsweeper of scum, à la 1980s vintage vigilante cheese like 1982's Class of 1984 (Perry King vs. evil high school "punks"), 1985's Death Wish 3 (Charles Bronson vs. evil gang "punks"), and 1984's Savage Streets (Linda Blair versus ... figure it out).
Hobo With a Shotgun faithfully apes exploitation conventions, from its lurid widescreen Technicolor hues to a score combining overproduced 1970s funky soundtrack kitsch with ’80s direct-to-video synth pulsing. (Complete with a closing-credits rock song that channels Pat Benatar.) Its ludicrously over-the-top violence is kinda funny, but also nastier than need be. Throughout, Hauer maintains a straight face. Maybe a tad more so than necessary — this movie could have used the wilder streak crazy-coot comedic streak shown by Jeff Bridges in last year's True Grit or Kurt Russell in 2007's Grindhouse.
Game Hauer retains his blue-eyed charisma and clearly relishes playing the gentle (when not lethal) giant in this artificially baroque scenario. He's also an actor long on the world stage still seeking a role in a worthy film (or play) that may define him for posterity. He's obviously got the talent — but at this point, would he take it? Would it even be offered? Did he take Hobo With a Shotgun because it seemed funny, or because it was the best he could get?
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.