It takes all of 10 minutes to decide whether or not you're on board with writer-director Michael Davis' giddy, balls-to-the-wall celebration of handheld ballistics. That's when Clive Owen, mid-gun-battle, shoots off the umbilical cord of the infant he's just delivered. Yow. If the flash flood of hysterical violence, visual puns and bad one-liners in the opening scene turns you off, you won't enjoy the rest of the movie. Because it gets crazier. Forget plot, character or thematic subtext, every scene in this breezy but bloody matinee flick is there to set up the next action sequence, constantly upping the ante on preposterous mayhem. It ain't called Shoot 'Em Up for nothing.
Influenced more by great movie posters than great movies, this delirious homage to John Woo's Hardboiled, Bugs Bunny and the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone is as mindlessly undemanding as it is shamelessly entertaining. Owen runs, slides, swings, rolls, drops and fucks with a blazing pistol in one hand and, more often than not, an infant in the other. It's the ultimate primal juxtaposition: the lone hero, holding both life and death in his hands. And as Woo used iconically hip Chow Yun Fat to sell the metaphor 15 years ago, Davis has found a worthy successor in cool Britannia, Clive Owen.
Actually, for a movie designed to give 15-year-olds multiple geekasms, the cast is surprisingly grown-up. Owen gives his character, Mr. Smith, and, heck, the film itself, more soul than it deserves. Monica Bellucci, a lactating prostitute with a heart of gold, simultaneously exudes carnality and class as her Italian accent mangles Davis' seedy noir speak. And Paul Giamatti redefines the term "chewing the scenery" with his relentlessly vulgar and profoundly creepy Mr. Hertz (get it?).
Ruthlessly determined to kill the newborn infant, Giamatti plays the smarmy Elmer Fudd to Owen's carrot-chomping Bugs. So complete is the allusion, that Giamatti suffers a multitude of defeats only to get back on his feet and continue in pursuit of that "Scwey wabbit!"
Using exposition only as an opportunity for the audience to catch its breath, Shoot 'Em Up frantically races from one brilliantly composed shoot-out to the next. Staged and shot by Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the stunts have an obvious sense of humor about themselves but never cross into contemptuous parody. Even the film's most outrageous scene a midintercourse shoot-out where Owen choreographs his movements for maximum lethality and peak sexual performance is played straight. There's no winky-winky aside to deflate the moment, just an earnest attempt to outdo the five really cool gun battles that came before it. Davis isn't slumming here. He clearly loves the genre.
To say Shoot 'Em Up's story is ludicrous would be stating the obvious. Davis matches each over-the-top fight sequence with an equally implausible plot twist, spinning a convoluted yet threadbare web of sperm donations, bone marrow transplants, and the political debate over the Second Amendment (natch). What you need to know is this: Giamatti wants to kill the baby and Owen wants to keep the little tyke alive.
Unfortunately, as audacious as the film is, it never crosses into the realm of a cult masterpiece. As creative as its fight scenes are, they lack the grace and wit of Woo's early work (The Killer, Hardboiled, etc.) and instead emulate his cruder Hollywood offerings (Face Off, Broken Arrow). In general, Davis shoots his action too close in, relying on quick cuts to generate sparks. A midair gunfight is particularly cheesy, drawing attention to Shoot 'Em Up's limited budget. Worse, Davis, for all his ingenuity, isn't much of a dialogue writer. His exposition often lands with a thud and his one-liners are simply awful.
But none of those things matter if you're just looking for a grisly good time at the cineplex. Galloping from its opening frame to its last, Shoot 'Em Up is delightfully unpretentious and blissfully short. And watching Clive Owen kill and quip with brutal efficiency only reminds us how perfectly he could have stepped into James Bond's shoes.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].