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Jesse Williams plays Todd, a grumpy and disturbed Toronto comic-book writer whose serial-killer series Slasherman has developed a cult following in the U.S.

Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

  • Random Acts of Violence
  • Directed by Jay Baruchel
  • Written by Jay Baruchel and Jesse Chabot
  • Starring Jesse Williams, Jordana Brewster and Jay Baruchel
  • Classification 18A; 81 minutes

rating

2.5 out of 4 stars


God bless Jay Baruchel. While the actor could have easily built a lucrative Judd Apatow-fashioned career in the U.S. like his brother in man-boy arms Seth Rogen, the Montreal-bred Baruchel has purposefully used his Hollywood credibility to help fuel his many homegrown passion projects, which are eccentric and niche and cost approximately one-tenth of the catering budget on Knocked Up. Sure, he’ll fly around the world promoting his voice work in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. He’ll headline a splashy American TV series like Man Seeking Woman. And of course he’ll help out his old friend Rogen by co-starring in the knowingly incestuous comedy This Is the End.

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But these projects feel like concessions – jobs that Baruchel will take on with professionalism and a smile, if they afford him the opportunity to spend most of his time in his home and native land, getting his hands dirty in an industry that is as messy as they come.

“This is a country in which our government will fund us to do just about anything. You just have to know what you’re good at, and stop playing the Hollywood game. We need to take advantage of what we have here,” Baruchel told me back in 2017. “We want to make horror, action, sci-fi movies – fun genre movies that are commercial and would find a home in a Cineplex or living room in the States, but that take place here, and are definitively Canadian.”

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At the time, the actor was promoting his directorial debut, the gross-out hockey caper Goon: Last of the Enforcers. But he was much more excited about the next project that he and his writing partner Jesse Chabot were working on: an adaptation of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti’s dark graphic novel, Random Acts of Violence. Here was a production that coalesced all of Baruchel’s interests and strengths into one bloody package: comic books, slasher flicks, dark comedies, and big, juicy questions about what it means to be an artist. Plus, it would be funded by Canadians, shot in Canada, take place (mostly) in Canada, and be filmed in that quintessentially Canadian method: fast, loose, and only partly out of control.

"These Hollywood movies have so many more masters to answer to than we do. There is a low ceiling on how hard they can go," Baruchel said at the time. "They can't have the colourful language we have, or have the punches land as hard as ours do. It's all the blood and guts that I ate up as a kid before the complete PG-13-ization of every American movie, in which they were robbed of any sense of chutzpah."

To that end, Random Acts of Violence is engorged, absolutely bursting, with chutzpah.

From left: Jordana Brewster, Jesse Williams, Jay Baruchel and Niamh Wilson.

Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Focusing on the book tour from hell, the movie finds a hero of sorts in Todd (Jesse Williams), a grumpy and disturbed Toronto comic-book writer whose serial-killer series Slasherman has developed a cult following in the U.S. At the urging of his publisher Ezra (Baruchel), Todd embarks on a publicity tour, dragging along his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster) and assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) for the ride. It’s all fun and games and cheap motels until the group are caught up in a twisted game with a real-life killer, whose murders eerily echo the method of Todd’s fictional psycho.

From its opening credit sequence, which recalls a forgotten grindhouse feature amped with the power of digital technology, to its many disgusting set-pieces of outrageous gore, the movie immediately and often loudly announces itself as a bold and purposefully chaotic work of prestige trash cinema. This is a compliment: Baruchel and Chabot clearly have a love for a very particular kind of downmarket 80s garbage. You know: those sketchy looking VHS tapes that populated the hidden-away shelves of your local video store. Movies that announced themselves with disreputable artwork and back-case images that terrified and titillated at the same time.

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But a movie needs to be built on more than just mere homage. So while Baruchel and Chabot have done their genre homework to a forensic level, they haven’t brought much in the way of new ideas to the killing floor. Throughout, the pair have Todd and Kathy debate how violence in art trickles down to affect society, but the argument feels like one that the filmmakers themselves were reluctant to have with each other. It feels inserted into the script to half-appease those disgusted by the action that takes place onscreen, rather than an idea that was baked into the work to begin with.

Also unsuccessful is the final leg of the story, although this was almost inevitable given that, at the beginning of the film, Todd announces that he is a writer still searching for his own ending. No kidding.

Still, none of these complaints should spell the death knell for Baruchel’s directing career. The filmmaker accomplishes some small, gross wonders working on his tiny budget, and wrings strong performances from most of his cast. Brewster is especially compelling, and it’s a refreshing change to see her actually have something to do onscreen, given that she’s so used to just standing in the background of Fast & Furious movies, trying her best to look engaged with whatever Vin Diesel is mumbling about. And even Baruchel himself dials it back a few notches in his sidekick performance – a welcome development, given how he let himself go way-too-bonkers in the Goon sequel.

So: If Baruchel wants to go throw himself at another few How to Train Your Dragon movies/series/video games in order to fund more of his scuzzy-cinema dreams, then by all means. And if he takes just a little more time and care in sharpening his killer instincts, then Canada’s tax dollars will be his for the taking.

Random Acts of Violence opens in select Canadian theatres July 31, the same day it is available digitally on-demand

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