Shoot ‘Em Up is like a master class in film criticism. The movie takes all the absurd, ridiculous things that typically happen in action movies and crams them together into one compact package. The point is to satirize the over-the-top nature of the modern action picture by embracing its idiosyncrasies, but what’s great about Shoot ‘Em Up is that it is not a self-knowing Naked Gun type of spoof. Instead, everything is played completely straight-faced, as though the film itself is a prime example of the very thing it is skewering.
The tone is set right from the get-go. In the first scene, we see an angry-looking fellow named Smith (Clive Owen) sitting on a bench in a dilapidated part of town. He’s minding his own business and sipping a cup of coffee when a pregnant woman comes running down the street screaming for help. She ducks down an alley, and a guy with a gun follows her. Smith gets up to help and ends up in a massive gunfight. As he fires back at the bad guys, his shell casings bounce off the pregnant woman’s stomach. She delivers her baby in the middle of all this, and Smith cuts the umbilical cord by shooting it, then stabs a bad guy to death with a carrot.
By this point – about six minutes in – you know whether or not this is a movie for you.
It turns out that the woman is not the one the bad guys really want. It’s the baby. A shady criminal named Hertz (Paul Giamatti) wants the infant dead for unknown purposes. Smith runs off with it, placing it temporarily in the care of Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci), a prostitute who specializes in servicing men who are into infantilism. (Her lactating breasts make her a natural to feed the now-motherless child.) Hertz is pretty crafty, though, and he keeps finding them. Smith wrangles his way through a series of increasingly outrageous gun battles with Hertz and his minions before uncovering – you guessed it! – a conspiracy with political connections.
Shoot ‘Em Up has all the elements that viewers (and film critics) often gripe about in action movies: the improbable physics, the scenes where everyone stops mid-action to deliver some lengthy exposition, the unlikely coincidences that get the hero out of a tough jam, the bad guys who couldn’t hit a standing target even if they had Uzis and fired from only three feet away, and so on. The picture is nothing but these things, strung together one after another. In theory, this should result in an unspeakably awful movie, but in fact the opposite is true. Writer/director Michael Davis has tapped into the heart of something bigger. What audiences respond to most in action flicks is the sense of adrenaline. With this film, we see that when liberated from the constraints of things like logic, reason, and reality, a movie is free to generate energy in any way it wants to. You won’t believe a second of this story, but it pumps you up from the first frame to the last.
In the past few years, there have been a host of hyper-violent films like Running Scared and Bad Boys 2 that have used the same elements that Shoot ‘Em Up uses. The problem is that those movies often have pretensions of being realistic or important; they have no sense of humor about themselves and therefore, in their attempt to be hard-boiled, they come off as kind of pathetic. Davis tries to see if these things can be spun around and given positive connotations. Turns out they can. Everything that happens here is even more ridiculous than things from other recent genre pictures, but the gleefully outrageous style draws us in, whereas in a more conventional film it might pull us out.
I love the performances. Clive Owen has emerged not just as a quintessential cool guy, but also as the screen’s foremost protector of infants. (See also: Children of Men) He plays Smith as an angrier, slicker version of Dwight, the character he played in Sin City. Owen maximizes the detached, chip-on-the-shoulder bravado that so many actors try to bring to action pictures. Paul Giamatti – my favorite actor, incidentally – is also great as the primary villain. While his physicality doesn’t automatically suggest hardcore action, Giamatti excels at playing live-wire characters with sharp minds. As Hertz, he screams and sputters and rages, providing a nice counterpoint to Owen’s robotic coolness. Again, the actors play their roles totally straight, never letting on that they are satirizing modern cinematic heroes and villains.
Shoot ‘Em Up is filled with ingenious moments: Smith’s admonishing of a mother who spanks her child in public, the way he repeatedly uses carrots as a deadly weapon, his way of rescuing the baby from a merry-go-round, a gloriously bloody fight while parachuting from a plane. It also has the most unusual sex scene I’ve ever set eyes upon. (Sex and violence – both action movie staples – are literally fused together in this unforgettable sequence.) There were times in the film when I laughed hard, but it’s not exactly a comedy; like I said, the flick plays it totally straight. The humor is more sly than anything, and for most of the running time, I sat there with a big smirk on my face, completely getting the joke. Which is exactly the reaction is wants to earn. Bottom line: Shoot ‘Em Up is seriously cool.
( 1/2 out of four)
Shoot 'Em Up is rated R for pervasive strong bloody violence, sexuality and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Shoot 'Em Up
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