Maintaining the equilibrium of an action movie is a surprisingly delicate business for a genre full of screaming bullets and crunching bone. James Bond is a good example, on one end of the spectrum, who have joyless grit of Quantum Of Solace while on the other we have the double-taking pigeons of Moonraker – and while people have their preferences, there is no true right or wrong answers.
However, vehemently testing that theory in 2007 was Michael Davis’ Shoot ‘Em Up. Essentially the bastard offspring of John Woo and Tex Avery that contains a grasp on reality so loose it makes Octopussy look like fucking Taxi Driver, the entire movie is basically that bit from Hong Kong action epic Hard Boiled where Chow Yun-fat cradles a baby during a gun fight but stretched to fill 90 minutes of screen time. So, ugly misfire or stunning headshot? I guess it’s time to fuck around and time out.
Carrot obsessed, short tempered drifter “Mr Smith” (sic) is casually minding his business one night when a pregnant woman runs past who’s being chased by a horde of gun toting thugs. Being the sort of virtuous grouch that these sort of movies always employs, Smith gies to help – but not in a call-the-police-scare-them-off kind of way; no. Smith – due to his mysterious past – is highly proficient in every bullet spitting firearm known to man and can pull death defying, gun related feats without the aid of The Matrix or superpowers of anything. Losing the mother in childbirth to a stray round, Smith gathers up the newborn – using his gun to shoot the umbilical, naturally – and goes on the run, trying to find shelter and food for the squawling infant.
His first choice is to go to Donna, a voluptuous Italian hooker whose sizable bust proves to be an invaluable assey as her special skill is that she’s lactating which means the baby can be fed.
So the two strive to keep the child safe from the murderous attempts of hen-pecked, lunatic hitman, Hertz, who is point man for a political conspiracy to deny a dying congressman the bone marrow transplants he wants to harvest from surrogate babies and then things get weirder from there.
As our main cast avoid various hollow point projectiles and multiple double crosses because a politician ironically wants to tighten gun laws if voted president, the bodycount steadily rises to critical mass. Can Smith and Donna keep little “Oscar” safe before the city finally runs out of cannon fodder henchman? Will Hertz manage to kill everyone else in time to make it to his son’s eighth birthday party? And finally: how bizarre are the filmmakers wing to go to come up with the most far fetched gun fights in cinema? What’s that? Skydiving gunfight, you say? Oh, ok then….
Wisely, Shoot ‘Em Up lays its cards on the table right from the start and it becomes achingly apparent within the first five minutes or so whether or not this gonzo action comedy is going to be your cup of tea. “I’m a British nanny and I’m dangerous.” Gravely intones Clive Owen with an admirably straight face before he wipes out a room with some ridiculously complicated gunplay – simply put: if you’re actually taking this seriously, then you ain’t doing it right.
The action, while way too glib and cartoonish to be genuinely exciting (Why simply shoot a bunch of thugs when you can shoot off two legs off a table, use it as a ramp to dive through a window and then shoot them?) is legitimately a silly hoot and is shot and edited so that it mercifully is easy to follow and doesn’t become just a blurry montage of people dying to blaring rock music. However, even for a massively goofy action film, the movie edges dangerously close to being preposterous and it’s almost if it’s daring you to throw your hands up in exasperation and yell “oh, fuck off!” at the screen as it continuously expects you to swallow its dopey, shooty, bollocks.
The hugely exaggerated tone obviously doesn’t stop at the violence either, with the three leads – not including the frankly indestructible baby who spends the film either being carried around in a brown paper bag or being swaddled in a flak jacket – whittled down to broad comic book caricatures. Owen’s scowly hero takes sadistic pride in inflicting violence on anyone seen indulging in the pet peeves that grinds Smith’s gears, such as blowing off a middle aged thug’s ratty ponytail (along with most of his skull), ramming the car of motorists who don’t indicate and beating up someone who sips he tea too loud.
In comparison, Monica Bellucci doesn’t have much to do but play a whore, swear seductively in Italian and leak from the nipples, but Paul Giamatti attacks his villian duties with the ferocity of a rabid weasel, baring his teeth like an animal with every line reading. Going all out to portray Hertz as a world class scumbag, he chews dialogue like “Guns don’t kill people – but they sure help!” like tobacco while gleefully indulging in such heinous acts as punishing his subordinates by shooting them in the ass or groping the tits of a dead woman – it may not be classy, but by fuck, is it fun.
In fact, that’s a perfect description for the movie as a whole: a raucous, defiantly un-PC romp that has absolutely no intention of being taken even remotely seriously and how much you enjoy it is entirely down to how you’d feel about watching Clive Owen murder someone with a carrot. But while the movie is fun while it lasts, it’s not exactly made for repeat viewing with it’s straight forward chaos making it strictly some one-hit shit. Also, those seeking more mature entertainment will undoubtedly find its adolescent charms as repellent as using skunk piss for an eye wash as the film’s relentless, deliberately obnoxious energy is as relentless and loud as beretta brain surgery.
But I will say this, with Shoot ‘Em Up’s dedication to non-existent plots, silly, splattery ultra-violence and a brutally antisocial and self important hero, I had to keep asking myself a single question over and over… how the fuck was Gerard Butler not in this?