“Have you learned nothing from video games?” asks one character during a momentary lull from noisy mayhem in “Guns Akimbo.” It’s the wrong question for this movie, whose makers have clearly learned from little else. Those wanting to kiss a few brain cells goodbye may enjoy this bombastic, crassly jokey action cartoon with Daniel Radcliffe as a dweeb who finds himself unpleasantly designated a new player in the unsimulated kill-or-die game he’s been watching online.
Anyone with an attention span above ADD levels, however, is likely to find this undeniably slick, energetic contraption plays somewhere between grating and numbing. Jason Lei Howden’s Kiwi-German co-production should do a bit better than last year’s vaguely similar TIFF-premiering enterprise “Nekrotronic,” but it still seems primarily a streaming item.
Radcliffe’s Miles is a stereotypical 21st-century nerd living alone in an action-figure-crammed flat, whose only girlfriend is the ex he’s still stuck on (Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Nova), and who’s bullied by a frat-bro boss at his job working for a company that specializes in cheesy video games for kids. His major emotional outlet is watching the notorious “Skizm,” a real-life “death match” between a rolling cast of “weirdos and criminals,” shot live by drones, followed by a growing audience of vicarious-thrill seekers. The reigning champion is Nix (Samara Weaving), a Harley Quinn type who’s played a major role in racking up the numerous fatalities to date that have police frantic to stop this public bloodbath.
Miles gets into the roid-raging spirit of the thing by applauding each bullet-riddled kill, while sparring with equally bloodthirsty trolls who clamber online to gloat. His bravado behind the safety of a keyboard attracts the wrong kind of attention, so that one day he finds several Mad Max rejects breaking down his apartment door to smack him around. Once he regains consciousness, he discovers major weaponry has been painfully bolted to his hands — rendering them extremely awkward for anything else, such as opening a door or having a wee — and that he’s the new opponent of highly lethal Nix.
The rest of hyperactive “Guns Akimbo” is pretty much all bang, splat and boom, a nonstop chase with frequent gaming and text-messaging graphics onscreen further heightening the resemblance to “Grand Theft Auto” and similar games. There’s also wall-to-wall, on-the-nose oldies filling in any audio space not occupied by Enis Rotthoff’s thumping techno score.
This is all meant to be a commentary on the rise of dehumanizing spectacle in the internet age, but of course the problem is that “Guns” is exactly what it’s satirizing. When the alleged satire is as broad and dependent on crass quips as it is here, you very much have a case of pot accusing kettle. An intended joke here is seeing a violent game junkie like Miles thrown into real, messy peril. Yet the action here is often every bit as ludicrously over-the-top as it would be in the fantasy context of any pure popcorn movie. Howden’s prior feature “Deathgasm” was a gory horror comedy that similarly mixed high energy with lowbrow humor to eventually wearying effect. But if its script soon ran out of ideas, that film still had a handmade likability that gets lost in this much more elaborate, impersonal pileup of incessant stuntwork and effects.
Providing some point of identification is Radcliffe, an adventuresome talent who throws himself into the role’s physicality, and flexes comic chops whenever he can. But he usually has more discerning choice in vehicles. It’s disappointing to see him turn action hero in a juvenile toy of a movie geared toward viewers whose imaginations were probably more active back when they were reading “Harry Potter.” This part could have been played by any young Hollywood turk, particularly since he and nearly all other principal cast members speak with American accents. (Though shot in Munich and Auckland, the movie is set in a fictional metropolis.)
Weaving capably plays not so much a character as a familiar poster image — Hot Chick With Uzi — while Ned Dennehy (much better in a concurrent Toronto Film Festival premiere “Calm With Horses”) is more strenuously uninspired as Ricktor, the chrome-domed, heavily-tattooed main villain. The film’s tech and design personnel all contribute polished work, yet the movie somehow doesn’t feel like it has unifying style so much as a whole lot of every-which-way stimulus. Except, you know, the thinky kind.
In a sense, it’s unfair to review “Guns Akimbo” by the usual grownup standards. Just as Christian viewers often complain when secular critics review faith-based entertainment, maybe this film should only be weighed by those who actually want a de facto video game in movie form. For those to whom it will be 97 minutes they don’t spend gaming, and thus attractive both as a break and for being practically the same thing anyway, it may well seem a blast. Howden’s overall sensibility is very much like his approaches to camera and editorial gambits here: So acrobatic that the lack of nearly any content underneath may strike some viewers as no problemo, even beside the point. Is there, in fact, a point? Perhaps movies like this aren’t made for anyone who’d ask that question.