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Shoot ‘Em Up

This one first came to me back when I still called Don Murphy my patron. He and his wife exec produced the movie for their friend, writer/director Michael Davis, who hadn’t done anything notable prior and hasn’t done anything at all since. What a shame.

When I first saw this trailer, I wanted to know more. When I saw this trailer, I wanted to see the movie. When I saw the movie, I wanted the DVD and when I got the DVD, I wanted to see it with as many friends as I possibly could.

Sure enough, there came a time a couple of years ago when I screened this movie for my fraternity. We needed a bonding experience to welcome the new recruits, and what a bonding experience we got. It was just me and a couple dozen of my best friends, eating whatever snacks we could get, gathered around a huge projection screen, watching in horror, humor and disbelief at what we were watching. That, my friends, is how you watch this movie.

Yes, I know that it’s stupid as hell. Yes, I know that it’s not the only big, dumb action movie out there. Yes, I know that other big, dumb action movies have ridiculous and threadbare plots. Yes, I know that you could find a million other action movies with lame one-liners. Yes, action movies commonly have sex scenes. Yes, every action movie has a lone gunman improbably killing entire armies of nameless thugs who can’t shoot straight.

But where else in the wide, wide world of movies is there a film in which the hero gets a sex scene and a shootout at the same time?

To this day, Shoot ‘Em Up remains my absolute favorite action movie, simply because of how inventive and Fun it is (note the capital F), logic and physics be damned. Every action scene in this movie is a work of creative genius and sadistic art. This is the movie in which Michael Davis takes guns, bullets and the applications of both to their furthest creative extremes and then pushes them over. It’s not just guns, either: This is the movie in which the main character uses a carrot as a deadly weapon. Twice.

From start to finish, it’s patently obvious that everyone involved had a lot of fun in making this. The three leads were specifically written with Clive Owen, Monica Belucci and Paul Giamatti in mind, and it really shows. Owen makes for a badass action hero, at all times portraying the angriest man in the world while still making him charming. Of course, it helps that so many of his pet peeves are easily relatable — who among us hasn’t wanted to scream “Use your turn signal, shit-for-brains!” while on the freeway? Oh, and Owen’s character — known only as “Smith” — has a mysterious and tragic past. Naturally.

Belucci does the best she can, but the script doesn’t really give her much to work with. Still, she gives Donna “DQ” Quintano a feisty attitude that works nicely off of Owen. Her native Italian charm is totally unfiltered here, which also does a lot to keep the character fresh. Alas, there’s something about her in the roles of “damsel in distress” and “mother figure” that doesn’t quite gel here.

Then there’s Hertz, the villain played by Giamatti. Even during those stretches in which the character is horribly written, Giamatti never fails to make this character fun. He’s surprisingly threatening in the role while making good use of his comedic talents, making for a homicidal genius we can laugh at. Of course, it helps that we get a chance to see Hertz when he’s not a murdering scumbag, but just a pathetic and henpecked little man. And in another stroke of genius, we frequently see Hertz on the phone, desperately trying to rally more troops. Of all the action movies I’ve seen or heard of, this has to be the first (and only, so far) which dares to ask just where all of these disposable foot soldiers come from.

(Side note: When Don Murphy was once asked how many guys were killed in this movie, he replied “Not enough.” Awesome.)

Oh, and did I mention that Stephen McHattie is in this movie? The then-future Nite Owl’s time here is brief, but does he ever make an impression. He plays Hammerson, the hard-assed gun manufacturer who employs Hertz. Hammerson is worthy of mention because he describes Smith as “a man with no name, riding into town on a pale horse, dispensing his own brand o’ justice.” He also has a few intriguing remarks about why people — Americans, in particular — love guns so much. Two of the movie’s central thematic points and they’re left to this character with only a few minutes of screen time. Lucky that role was cast so damn well.

Something else that deserves mention is the soundtrack. This movie features hypermasculine and heavy rock tracks from the likes of Motorhead, Nirvana and Motley Crue. This soundtrack is the final proof that this movie knows exactly what it is and doesn’t apologize for it. These songs mesh together with the action sequences to create a movie that works perfectly as parody and homage to all the trigger-happy movies that sired it.

And then there’s the baby.

It’s common practice for the hero in an action movie to be responsible for the well-being of a character who can’t do anything in a firefight other than cower and scream. When this character is a sidekick or a love interest, it becomes annoying more often than not. But when the character is a baby, it becomes endearing. This is such a revelation that I’m amazed nobody’s done it before (except for John Woo, who entrusted a baby to Chow Yun-Fat in one scene of Hard Boiled, which reportedly served as the inspiration for Shoot ‘Em Up).

The baby also works wonders as a character development device. We see Hertz going after the baby and thus know instantly that he’s the bad guy. Smith and DQ care for this orphaned child they don’t have any connection to, thus earning our sympathy and re-establishing their positions as the good guys. This is especially effective early on, since Smith is a homeless man who barely has anything of his own, but still gives everything he can. Without uttering a single word, this cold-hearted killer we never learn anything about tugs at the heartstrings of any audience member in attendance.

There’s also a scene later on in which Smith gives the kid a talk about guns. Just in the way he delivers it, Owen seems to imply that there’s a generational thing going on here — that Smith had heard the exact same talk when he was a kid and maybe he’s given it to others before. It’s a touching little moment of bonding between this man and his surrogate child… yet it’s also funny in a frightening sort of way because he’s teaching this little newborn how to use a friggin’ Glock. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the heart of the movie in a nutshell.

I know deep down that this isn’t a good movie. The CGI is dodgy, particularly in regard to the stunt babies. What little plot there is has numerous holes and implausibilities. In fact, there’s a “twist” scene on an airplane which basically takes the plot, crumples it up and throws it away like so much scrap paper. A lot of the one-liners fall flat, quite a bit of dialogue is awful and for every attempt at characterization that works, there’s another that doesn’t.

But damned if I can ever watch this movie without grinning like a madman.

Shoot ‘Em Up is a guilty pleasure for me. I can’t help laughing at every lame one-liner and those fight scenes never, ever get old. To this day, I still can’t sit in an action movie without using SEU as my yardstick for its quality. It’s a damn shame that Michael Davis isn’t working anymore, because he made a wonderfully original movie that was better-made than it had any right to be. It’s that kind of talent, creativity and brass balls that Hollywood desperately needs more of.

One Comment

  1. Comment by Anne:

    How did I miss this? I’ve got to catch this one.

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