SHOOT 'EM UP
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Writer/Director Michael Davis' Shoot ‘Em Up is a hyperactive, overly stylized paean to ultaviolent trash cinema. And bless its bullet riddled little heart, for it succeeds at sustaining a fever pitch level of insanity throughout its remarkably short running time. Shoot ‘Em Up is eighty-four minutes of violent cartoon imagery, punctuated by numerous shots of pure adrenaline to the heart.
It's also exactly what I expected it to be, the next in a series of over the top, self-aware actioners led into the fray by last year's speed-addicted Jason Statham vehicle Crank. It's the sort of stuff critics should hate – postmodern self-referential fare that makes no excuses for the silliness inherent in its derivative DNA. Shoot ‘Em Up is largely inspired by John Woo's Hard Boiled (namely the key section wherein Chow Yun Fat's supercop Tequila safeguards an infant during a nasty hospital firefight), even if it ultimately doesn't ape the look of its Hong Kong predecessors.
Shoot ‘Em Up is an adaptation of a comic book series that never existed. You can tell that this thing was immaculately storyboarded, for its gun play set pieces are intricately choreographed affairs. And it's no mere John Woo/ Quentin Tarantino copycat either – Davis injects some random and altogether innovative elements into the proceedings, and earns his stripes as an action director.
The story begins with one of numerous phallic references, as Clive Owen's grizzled mystery man Mister Smith snaps off a tasty piece of raw carrot, dipping it into a cup of coffee as a frightened pregnant woman crosses his path. Owen yet again embodies the 'reluctant hero', and in this case he's a lethal killing machine who has sworn off guns for some unknown reason that has also probably contributed to his case of acute world-weariness. (There's even an ironic thread about gun control later in the film.)
Smith's newfound passivity is only as effective as his avoidance of all things that he “really hates”, including bad drivers, people who slurp their beverages, and thugs who use guns to threaten people and make up for their own insecurities. His ingrained code of honor won't allow him to look past the odd drama that walked right past him, and soon enough he's offing a legion of baddies with the clever use of his carrot, some spilled oil and a whole lot of borrowed bullets.
Paul Giamatti's Mr. Hertz is the mastermind behind the operation that would see the assassination of an innocent infant, and he and Owen have a great time chewing up the scenery and bouncing one-liners back and forth. Once it becomes clear that a rogue agent has become a kink in the works, Hertz spares no expense drafting each and every generic looking Matrix stand-in to accompany him on his narrow-minded mission. While Hertz does the usual bad-guy routine of punishing his own men for failure, he does it in new ways (he shoots one man in the ass) and also prides himself on joining in on the mayhem (“the leader who stays in the rear takes it in the rear”, so he says).
More iconic sexual overtones come into play with the introduction of Monica Bellucci's Donna Quintano (or DQ), a specialist prostitute who uses her lactating capabilities to cater to a niche market of milk-minded clientele. For every penile gun or carrot Smith plays around with, DQ counters the testosterone with a well-placed boob reference. Hertz is also plagued by a mammarian preoccupation, for he follows up a reference to a dead woman's “nice knockers” with a surreptitious squeeze or two in the back of his vehicle while his men aren't watching.
With the baby's mother ventilated, both the child and Smith are in need of a mother figure, so he contacts DQ (apparently he was a client at one point) and urges her to keep the infant safe while he goes about murdering a thousand guys in leather trenchcoats. Hertz, however, is the resident frickin' genius, and routinely susses out plans behind plans – you just have to accept his conclusions at face value and move on. One of his first coups is discovering where Smith has gone, spurring a game of cat and mouse that ensues for the rest of the film.
Unlike numerous other films of this ilk (say, any of Luc Besson's recent work) Shoot ‘Em Up doesn't blow its wad in the first half, and is smartly sequenced so that every moment of character introspection is quickly followed by a blast of ludicrous violence. The choice to cast this film with such great actors as Owen and Giamatti is what ultimately makes this thing work as well as it does. They keep the audience invested in their performances as their surrounding environment spirals out into Looney Tunes material.
The action sequences are great – there's the opening volley that culminates in a silly battle of profanity involving a huge neon sign. There's a great number in Smith's weird hideout (complete with a homegrown carrot farm and useful obstacles such as warehouse roller conveyors – not to mention rollicking music from Motorhead) that evokes elements of the classic nightclub shootout from The Crow. There's a hilarious assault on a gun factory that hinges on a ludicrous amount of boobytraps. And who can forget the spastic free-fall shootout after Smith and countless baddies take a tumble out of an airplane.
And that still doesn't cover half of the crazy stuff running rampant through the veins of this film. It's some of the most overstuffed eighty minutes you'll find in cinema, and Davis even manages to throw in some moments of quiet character development here and there. He knows how to give these people just enough personal baggage to make them interesting, but never enough so that they evolve beyond their status as 'types'. We learn that both Smith and DQ are haunted by moments in their personal histories. We know Hertz is a family man, as he consistently references his son's birthday and interrupts skirmishes to answer his wife's plaintive cell phone calls.
The characters of Shoot ‘Em Up are also relatively self aware in a post-modern sense, as in the scene where Smith announces that he's contacted numerous media sources after concluding that he's seen enough "bad action movies" to know that trusting in one journalist alone will invariably lead to your betrayal and a pile of regret. Owen is also a bit of a throwback to Dwight in Sin City, and his coffee cup opening certainly resembles his java-driven intro in Children of Men. Even Giamatti gets to reference his star turn in Sideways with a filthy little epithet.Sure, it's all a load of hooey with a ton of roll-your-eyes gags, but it's entirely believable within the cartoon-like context of the film, and with someone like Owen at the helm you find yourself wanting to believe. When Smith launches himself through two vehicle windshields only to tumble into the back of a van full of villains and snappily murder them all with machine gun fire, you just know that it could happen! It's the antithesis to reality-based action films such as the Bourne series, and will show you more uses for a carrot than you previously thought imaginable! Shoot ‘Em Up is a resounding success of trash cinema – can't wait for the sequel. Shoot ‘Em Down, anyone?