Monday, September 10, 2007

Shoot ‘Em Up / ***½ (R)

Smith: Clive Owen
Hertz: Paul Giamatti
Donna Quintano: Monica Bellucci
Hammerson: Stephen McHattie
Lone Man: Greg Bryk

New Line Cinema presents a film written and directed by Michael Davis. Running time: 87 min. Rated R (for pervasive strong bloody violence, sexuality and some language).

My dad’s favorite movies are those mindless violence action flicks where the plot merely exists as an excuse for gunfire and explosions; he refers to them as “Smith & Wesson commercials.” Well, the new shoot ’em up—aptly titled “Shoot ‘Em Up” —is the ultimate Smith & Wesson commercial. Hardly a moment goes by in this movie without a gun going off in someone’s hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes the characters don’t even need to have the gun in their hands to make the bullets fly. Sometimes they don’t even use a gun at all to “shoot their loads.” Sometimes all it takes is a carrot. But there is a hero, a villain, a sexy girl and many, many expendable thugs in black. There are thousands of bullets, hundred of explosions, gallons of blood, and damn any attempt to keep it realistic. That would just take away from the fun of it all.

The film begins like a classic spaghetti western, with a close-up on the hero’s eyes. In this case it’s Smith (Clive Owen, “Sin City”), a man sitting on a city street bench eating a carrot. Smith witnesses a pregnant woman being pursued by a guy who wears his bad on his sleeve. When the guy pulls out a gun to deal the woman a final solution, Smith can’t bring himself to stay out of it.

Suddenly, we find ourselves at the end of a western, in the showdown. The next 85 minutes will be that showdown, possibly the longest in film history. And the filmmakers are bent on giving the audience everything it ever wanted out of a showdown, most notably never letting up.

Smith’s challenger is a man by the name of Hertz. Paul Giamatti (“The Nanny Diaries”), a character actor who generally specializes in playing nervy little rats, threatens to develop teeth gnashing into an art form all its own. Giamatti can barely keep the sentences he forms from exploding out of his mouth like bullets forced out of a gun.

Which brings us back to the guns. Everything in this film is dealt with in bullets and steel. The pregnant woman gives birth while Smith fights the bad guys off. With no blade at hand, the obvious solution is to cut the cord by shooting it off. Need to look up last year’s tax return? Use a bullet to open up the filing cabinet, and eliminate a bad guy while you’re at it. Need a handy escape route? Surely a bullet will provide a speedy method. Can’t find the right words to tell your enemy your deepest thoughts? A neon sign and a few well placed bullets will solve that problem efficiently. And if you run out of bullets, you can always borrow someone else’s, or purchase a few with some food stamps.

Obviously, writer-director Michael Davis (whose most notable credit is the screenplay for “Double Dragon: The Movie”) has both a gift for delivering copious amounts of action and a great sense of humor about it. During one of the more ridiculous sequences, Smith jumps from an airplane and engages in a freefall gunfight with a string of baddies; it occurred to me that all these bodies had to land somewhere. The detail didn’t slip Davis’s clever mind either, and its payoff produces one of the movie’s biggest laughs.

Now, I use the word “ridiculous” not in the negative sense. This film is ridiculous, and to the undiscerning viewer it might seem silly and over the top. But that’s the point. This film is gloriously ridiculous. Not ridiculous to a fault, but to an acerbic comic effectiveness that is delightful and even wonderfully imaginative. When Smith blows a hole into an oil tank to create a slick for catapulting his body through a room of bad guys, or when he spins down the center of a stairwell on a rope, mowing down bodies as he falls, it is meant to evoke those gimmicks in serious action flicks that make you roll your eyes. Here it inspires laughter and a sublime joy stemming from the absurdity of cliché action violence.

But what of the plot? It doesn’t matter. I suppose it is important to know that Smith ends up with this newborn baby, carrying the poor infant through the most gratuitous action sequences. The presence of a baby leads Smith to enlist the help of a prostitute (Monica Bellucci, “The Brothers Grimm”) who specializes in infant fetishists. Her involvement allows Smith a partner to help him keep the baby safe from his would be murderers. Her presence also provides Davis with the opportunity to create one of the greatest testosterone fantasies ever conceived, a combination sex scene/shootout.

I almost wish they hadn’t bothered with plot details or reason at all. It would have been nice never to have learned just who Smith was or why Hertz was trying to kill a baby that hadn’t even been born when his job began. All these details that Hollywood seems to feel are necessary just seem like a distraction in such a highly stylized genre film. But I suppose these details serve as a break from the constant action. “Shoot ‘Em Up” certainly earns its title, and earns it well.

Buy it: great action flicks

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