Friday, September 07, 2007

"Shoot 'Em Up" -- * * *

One’s enjoyment of “Shoot ‘Em Up” will be hingent squarely upon whether or not the phrase “too over-the-top” has ever escaped their lips. A carnage-filled, gleefully irreverent romp, the flick has virtually no foothold in reality whatsoever, and in fact, gets off on how nuts and ridiculous it is, upping the stakes of absurdity with each new set-piece. We get shootouts during sexual intercourse, as well as while sky-diving (the movie’s highpoint), so saying one needs to suspend their belief is a bit of an understatement.

While some movies are criticized for being plotless, with “Shoot ‘Em Up,” it seems inherent to the enjoyment, to the extent that the movie only falters when it gets bogged down in plot. All you need to know (and all we DO know for the majority of the movie) is that good guy Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) must protect a baby from the villainous Hertz (Paul Giamatti) and his henchman, using as many guns as possible. We don’t know why Giamatti wants this baby dead and we don’t question it; we just roll with the movie for 85 minutes of insanity.

Lots of movies have their “You’re either with it or you’re not” moments—with “Shoot ‘Em Up,” writer/director Michael Davis is courteous enough to give it to us right in the first sequence. Minutes in, our protagonist shoves a carrot in the mouth of a bad guy, punches it, killing the bad guy via carrot impalement, and then uttering “Eat Your Vegetables.” It’s worth noting that this is the first, but not the last character to meet their end via carrot. If you’re still not sure if the movie’s for you, before the scene is over, Smith with deliver a baby while partaking in a shootout, and then “cut” the umbilical cord by shooting it off. This is not a movie that gives a shit if you’re offended.

Yes, the baby is treated like a circumstantial accessory and is constantly in danger, and yes, the film’s lone female character, DQ (Monica Belucci), is a lactating hooker who works in a breast-shaped building, and is basically only utilized as a source of milk and a sperm receptacle. I know that may sound bad, but honestly, as violent and seemingly misogynistic as the movie might be, it’s so light-hearted and fun that it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting too worked up about it.

Davis undercuts potential criticism of the film as a cartoon by acknowledging it himself throughout. As the movie goes on, we’re given more and more parallels between Smith and Hertz, and Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Said parallels range from subtle (Smith’s constant carrot chewing) to not-so-much (Hertz calling Smith a “wascally wabbit”), but either way, they only add to the inherent fun of the movie.

Davis’s screenplay mildly attempts lending semblances of depth to its characters (DQ has had a stillborn baby; Smith’s tragic past is hinted at), but thankfully, it never really tries to be anything weightier than it actually is. Emotions are only given brief credence, and the movie is better for it; for the most part, things are kept intentionally simplistic—hell, just look at the characters’ names.

Clearly the performances here are not going to be brought up in the awards derby, but they’re insanely fun and our two leads are obviously having the times of their lives. Giamatti and Owen are fantastic, Oscar-nominated actors who have a tendency to start in highbrow, personal projects, so the idea of the two of them co-starring in a blissfully mindless action flick is borderline-brilliant to me.

Owen keeps a staid look on his face for the film’s entirety, but he’s unable to hide how much fun he’s having, as he blatantly enjoys being an action hero. What makes Smith a bit more fun than the average bland hero is that while he’s clearly a good guy who does the right thing, he’s also an angry fucker who’s a stickler for common courtesy, as we get to see when he nearly runs a well-to-do fellow off the road for not utilizing his turn-signal when changing lanes.

Giamatti may have won many awards, and is one of the finest performances of our time (his Oscar snub for “Sideways” is still unforgivable), but he’s never been one to thumb his nose at genre material—if you haven’t seen his work in “The Amazing Screw-On Head,” you must. But despite his occasional playing of the “opposition”—in “The Illusionist” and “Private Parts”—this is his first time playing a genuine slimeball with no redeeming qualities. You can see throughout that he’s relishing the opportunity to play a guy evil and lecherous enough to grope a dead woman’s tit. While again, character definition isn’t really the movie’s strong suit, Giamatti does all sorts of things to make Hertz more interesting than he is on the page; I think I noticed a very slight British accent in spots.

There seems to be debate going around as to whether Davis intended the film to be satirical/critical of the absurdity of action films, or if it’s simply a loving celebration of everything the genre entails. The lecherous Jeffrey Wells says the former, Davis himself says it’s strictly the latter. I may be way off (as I often tend to be), but while I think it’s certainly more of a lovefest than an indictment, there’s a little from column A, little from column B.

I would think it’s very clear to anyone who watches “Shoot ‘Em Up” that it’s made by someone who really loves the fun of action movies, but there’s also some good-natured ribbing of some of its excesses, taken to extremes here. For instance, Smith’s non-stop, unrelentingly cheesy one liners after killing people is seemingly a poke at films like “Die Hard,” where clever post-kill quips are commonplace (each time Owen said one, I couldn’t help thinking of Ben Stiller screaming “Hey fellas, gotta eat your greens!” while firing away).

While I think it will eventually find a large and appreciative audience—it will certainly live on the DVD shelf of frat boys forever—“Shoot ‘Em Up” is for a very specific demographic, and I’m curious if it’ll quietly do modest business or be a monster hit. Nonetheless, it’s probably the most fun and disposable entertainment out there right now, and offers a chance to see two masterful actors just having a shitload of fun. It demands nothing of you (other than a tolerance for excess), wants nothing from you, and just gives you entertainment in return. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.


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