Not since Snakes on a Plane has their been a movie title as literally descriptive as Shoot ‘Em Up, which is, in fact, a shoot ‘em up (Perhaps not coincidentally, the films share prodcuer Jeff Katz).
But it’s not just any shoot ’em up; this flick takes movies about men with guns shooting other men with guns to the next level, if not the next level beyond that level. It’s a rare minute of this film that goes by in which five to ten people don’t get violently shot to death. If you took all of the gun battles from all of John Woo’s old Hong Kong work, an obvious inspiration (particularly Woo’s Hard Boiled), subtracted all of the slo-mo bird flights and replaced those with even more gun battles, then you’d be pretty close to the contents of Shoot ‘Em Up.
Clive Owen stars as “Mr. Smith,” a misanthropic hobo marksman with a fondness for carrots and little patience for life’s little irritations. When we first meet him, he’s sitting on a bench crunching a carrot like Clark Gable in It Happened One Night . When a gunman chases a pregnant lady right past him, “Smith” reluctantly goes into action. Soon he’s formed an impromptu family unit with the baby and Monica Bellucci’s Italian prostitute who just so happens to be lactating. The trio are targeted by Paul Giamatti’s hitman, a former FBI consultant with a small army of disposable thugs, a sharp mind for details and a fondness for bad jokes.
The principals are each given relatively little to do, but they all do it extremely well. Owen’s hang dog expression and hard, world-weary eyes make him a perfect jaded action hero. Giamatti is playing the sort of role that last decade would probably have automatically went to Dennis Hopper, and he excels at texturing all two-dimensions of his character, hamming it up while establishing a spectrum of line delivery that ranges all the way from angry growl to gleeful snarl. Bellucci has the very least to do—essentially, just look hot, and occasionally cuss someone out in Italian—but speaking Italian and looking hot happen to be things she does very well.
There are some half-hearted attempts to make some kind of statement about guns, particularly in a couple speeches about the transformative effects of guns on their owners and the integral part of the American dream they play. Among the mysterious cabal of villains, there’s a good old boy gun manufacturer, and the goofy plot driving all the awesome action improbably revolves around federal gun control.
But mostly this plays as fodder for one-liners and jokes, like Owen deadpanning, “So what do you think of the second amendment now?” to a gun factory security guard after he’s blown away a few dozen of his fellow guards, or Giamatti sneering “Guns don’t kill people…but they sure help!”
Of course, it’s kind of hard to make a pro-gun control movie that devotes its entire running time to making the use of guns look super-cool, but perhaps looking for any theme in the film is looking way too hard.
Writer/director Michael Davis establishes early on that this is a film about staging the most awesomely ridiculous gun fights ever put to film, starting with a completely over the top scene and then seeking to top it with something even crazier every ten minutes or so: Owen’s character finds himself getting in Woo-style gun battles while delivering a baby, having sex, getting in a car accident, sky diving, and so on.
“Violence is one of the most fun things to watch,” Giamatti’s character snarls like a bestial Groucho Marx in one scene, and that’s probably the closest thing to a point to the movie. He’s right, after all, and Shoot ‘Em Up offers plenty of evidence to why that’s the case, provided, of course, that said violence is as imaginative and as well executed as it is here.