Oh, it’s all deployed with an embracing of demented glee and the grandest possible aura of self-awareness—and that’s what makes it work so deliciously, if you’re cinematically jaded enough to stomach it. I’ve been saying it all summer: There’s something in the pop-culture zeitgeist telling us that the snarky action movie has run its course, that there’s no place further for it to go. First, there was the brilliant comedic takedown of the genre with Hot Fuzz; then there was the ultimate live-action cartoon of Transformers. Now there’s Shoot ’Em Up, which is so absurd, and teeters so ridiculously between obnoxiousness and hilarity, that it reaches a pinnacle of movie-movie aggression and testosterone-fueled sound ’n’ fury beyond which there is … nothing. Half the tongue-in-cheekiness here is a semicrazed confession and apology. “We’re sorry,” writer-director Michael Davis seems to say, “that we had to be so preposterous, but where else was there to go?” And the other half is a challenge to anyone who might dare to top Davis: Try to outdo this.
Think Raising Arizona meets The Hire, those short films Clive Owen starred in for BMW in 2001 and 2002 (they were among the first viral videos). Then inject unrecommended doses of steroids. Mr. Smith (Owen) is basically a bum on the streets of an unnamed, generic city, but he’s conveniently got some mad skillz with projectile weapons. Those skillz turn out to be quite handy when he comes to the rescue of a pregnant—and about to deliver!—woman from the mess of armed and murderous thugs on her tail.
The juxtaposition of tender and belligerent in the opening gambit—a warehouse shootout in which Smith’s grungy badass cradles the newborn babe while delivering a fusillade of bullets and ducking the barrage coming at them—is but the beginning of 87 minutes of crazy and sly mixing up of love and hate, sex and violence, sweet and very, very sour. Because now Smith is on the run with the baby, whom the bad guys want dead. And Smith won’t shoot dogs, even vicious hounds on the wrong side of the good guy/bad guy divide, so of course he’s going to look after a helpless little bundle of cute innocence.
He hooks up with an old pal, hooker DQ (Monica Bellucci)—and yes, her name does mean what you think it means, which is so sick it’s funny—to help with the wee one while they hunt down the freaks who want to kill the kid. It all boils down to a mano-a-mano between Owen, whose bleak, careless sexiness tumbles off the screen, and Paul Giamatti as Mr. Hertz, the head villain. He’s a thoroughly repulsive bad guy but just as sexy, by any measure of screen charisma and talent, as Owen.
The movie around them is a big, honking, brutal jape. Don’t misunderstand, though—it’s a wryly witty one, for all that it glints with nastiness. But Owen and Giamatti play it as straight and as serious as a heart attack, which becomes part of the joke, too. Even if Smith and Hertz know they’re caricatures, what choice do they have but to be themselves? Still, you can sense Owen and Giamatti trembling with desire to wink at us, too. Who wouldn’t feel that way, with all the overt jokes about the phallicism of guns and the orgasmic release of shooting them? “You wanna get off to an action movie?” Shoot ’Em Up seems to ask. “Here you go,” it answers itself, “and, oh, by the way, you’re part of the joke, too. Hope you can laugh at yourself.”
Enjoy it while it lasts. When it comes to turning the action-movie paradigm inside-out, this could be as good as it gets.
SHOOT ’EM UP
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