Mr. Smith (Owen), a loner with a talent for gunplay, is left holding the baby after a shoot-out involving a pregnant woman and some murderous goons. Looking for answers, he goes on the run with a lactating hooker (Bellucci), while a hitman (Giamatti) hunts him down…
Bang! Bang! Rat-a-tat! Pchaw! Pchaw! Forgive our onomatopoeic outburst, readers, but it’s for a very good reason - for Michael Davis’ trigger-happy Shoot ’Em Up is a movie defined by gunshots rather than dialogue.
Designed as the ultimate action flick - Davis sold the film to executives by showing animated storyboards with the title card, “This is John Woo’s wet dream” - it starts as it means to go on, with a demented shoot-out in the middle of a birth which, with remarkable economy, establishes the protagonist (Owen’s sardonic Mr. Smith), antagonist (Giamatti’s snarling Mr. Hertz) and the film’s twisted sense of humour. Then it roars from a shoot-out in a car chase, to a shoot-out on a plane, to a shoot-out during a sex scene, to a shoot-out mid-parachute jump, to a shoot-out during… you get the idea.
Of course, this could all be seen as a wry comment on the absurd nature of action movies, but Davis is being (almost) entirely sincere in boiling down action cinema to its purest form, contemptuously ignoring such staid conventions as ‘characterisation’ and ‘back story’. The result won’t be to everyone’s taste, and it sure as hell ain’t art, but neither is it stupid, showcasing genuine invention and pitch-black wit, as well as two eye-catching leads in Owen and Giamatti.
As a bad-ass, blue-collar Bond, Owen spits out sardonic one-liners almost as fast as he snuffs out inept henchmen. Giamatti’s Hertz, meanwhile, has a great time chewing any scenery that hasn’t already disintegrated under a hail of bullets. Both actors nail the movie’s whacked-out tone, made explicitly clear in one scene where Smith, crunching on a carrot, deadpans, “What’s up, Doc?” This is Looney Tunes writ large.
There are flaws, of course. Although Davis is a fine and inventive writer, he doesn’t quite have the directorial skillset, or budget, to pull off certain sequences, notably the sex scene shoot-out. And repetition is a problem: death by carrot is a fresh, funny and fucked-up idea - the first time round. On the third pass, it’s as bland as carrot juice.
Yet, for most of its running time, Shoot ’Em Up is a hundred-miles-an-hour blast that could well be this year’s Crank. And yes, that is a recommendation.
A depraved B(ullet) ovie that may not quite be John Woo’s wet dream, but which is good enough to make the maestro shift uncomfortably in his sleep.