Shoot 'Em Up

Gritty, ultra-violent and fast-paced, New Line's action thriller, Shoot Em Up is a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase from the first scene to the last. At 82 minutes (without credits), the picture may be the shortest actioner this summer, but it's also the most pleasurable and unpretentious flick-what you see is what you get.

Cartoonish by design, with a dozen set-pieces that increasingly get more and more preposterous, cruel, and bloody, the aptly-titled film is the kind of exploitation fare that Rodriguez and Tarantino were aiming for in their tribute to shlocky exploitation in “Grindhouse,” but ultimately didn't achieve.

Blending pulsating action with street-wise humor and cool music, Shoot Em Up is a midnight movie par excellence, one that teenage boys (the primary target audience) would eat and come for more. Fittingly, New Line world-premiered the movie at Comic-Con in San Diego last month and had to add screenings due to popular demand. Repeat viewing is built into the experience, not just for the visuals but also for the cool lines, some of which are bound to enter into movie lore.

The more serious critics likely will dismiss “Shoot 'Em Up” as vile, morally reprehensible, perhaps even “irresponsible,” wondering how did the feature end up with R-Rating. Nonetheless, director Michael Davis seems to know exactly what he is doing and who he is doing it for. Thus, while the theatrical release (it opens September 7) will yield decent if not huge results, “Shoot 'Em Up” will have a longer live in ancillary market and eventually become a cult midnight movie, to play at the Newart in L.A. and other venues across the country.

That said, even on its own terms, the movie is not flawless. The political subplot, which is imposed superficially on the actioner, doesn't work, and encounter of the hero with an immoral politico, Senator Rutledge (Daniel Pilon), is unconvincing. And at least one set-piece (with Clive Owen jumping off an airplane and shooting 'em up while parachuting) is cheesy and doesn't look good by standards of the rest of the set-pieces, which are spectacular in both meanings of this term.

There has always been something peculiarly touching, tender, humorous and absurd, when a macho man like Clive Owens' Mr. Smith holds a tiny baby, who's endlessly crying. You may recall the sight of John Wayne's in John Ford's “Three Godfathers,” or the French comedy hit “Three Men and a Cradle,” remade into a successful American picture “Three Men and a Baby,” starring Tom Selleck.

The subtitle of this picture might have been called “Mr. Smith, a Baby, and a Carrot,” as Clive Owen is always seen chomping on a carrot (there seems to be endless supply, but don't ask where he gets them). The functions of carrots in this yarn justify their billing as a character role, sort of a sidekick, surpassing the fun and help provided by the nominal sidekick, a sexy hooker played by Italian star Monica Bellucci.

Grounded in a rather edgy and semi-realistic world of gun-runners, deadly assassins, and corrupt politicians, the tale is rather simple. The chiseled and handsome Owen, unshaven and wearing a long black leather coat (not unlike Clint Eastwood's in “Unforgiven”), plays the wisecracking Mr. Smith, a man as tough as they comewith a tender spot for a baby he rescues in the opening sequence. He names the baby Oliver, after Oliver Twist.

Mr. Smith will stop at nothing to save the innocent infant. In the course of the film, he carries Baby Oliver in his arms (while shooting, of course), on his back, in a shopping bag, and so on. Later on, he deposits Oliver with Bellucci and places both of them within a tank (yes, you read it right).

I suspect that director Michael Davis was inspired by and means his feature to be an homage to John Woos Hong Kong masterpiece Hard Boiled, in which the central shoot-out, choreographed as a ballet, took place in a hospital full of babies, with none of them harmed. While the idea may qualify as a tribute, the visual style does not. With all due respect to Davis, “Shoot 'Em Up” lacks the grace and elegance of Woo's early pictures. In its exhilarating action and excitement that derives from the visual pleasure of movement, “Shoot 'Em Up” is closer to Woo's American features, which have gotten bigger, cruder, and more dependent on special effects.

As scripted by Davis, the plot is minimal, sort of a skeleton. In a greasy back alley in the heart of the city, the dangerous Mr. Smith shoots and kills three gunmen while delivering a baby as he tries to save a young woman from some very determined thugs. As he finishes off the assassins and tends to Oliver, Mr. Smith witnesses the cruel sight of a bullet hole in the mothers head.

The danger has just begun. Mr. Smith grabs the baby and heads toward the only part of town he feels safe: The red-light district. He arrives at a red bordello at the doorstep of Donna Quintano, nicknamed DQ (Monica Bellucci), a big-hearted, gutsy hooker with a chip on her shoulder.

Smith needs DQ's help, desperately so. Before she has a chance to understand what's going on, the baby is placed in her arms, turning her into a Madonna with a child. Later on, we find out that DQ had a miscarriage, which explains her commitment to the infant, her maternal instincts and willingness to risk her life for him.

Though DQ doesnt trust Smith–he is the last person she (or we) would expect to be toting around an infant–she joins him on his quest to uncover the mastermind behind this attack. Along the way, they argue, separate, and eventually make love in a steamy violent scene, as their intercourse is interrupted by Paul Giamatti's Mr. Hertz and his thugs.

If you see the picture on the big screen-and I highly recommend that you do so-there will giggles and astonishment in the moviehouse. With both utterly naked, and Owen holding Bellucci in her arms, he grabs a gun and begin shooting–the final shoot coincides with D.Q. reaching a wild and loud orgasm!

Inserting a timely issue into the plot, the filmmakers send the duo on a journey that takes them to a horrible place. In the bowels of the city, Smith and DQ discover a baby factory. There is a market for bone marrow among the rich and powerful, and the factory provides it from newborn infants of the citys disenfranchised. (There was a similar theme, treated seriously in Stephen Frears' gritty urban melodrama, “Dirty Pretty Things”).

Quite expectedly, the deeper they delve into this horrific new world, the more corruption, brutality and greed they encounter. The ultra-villain (everything in the film is ultra) is Giamatti's Mr. Hertz, a heavy of the old Hollywood school, with one modernist touch. He takes call on his cell from his wife, even when he's in danger and presumably dying.

Shoot Em Up builds to a climatic action crescendo. The whirlwind final chapter is brilliantly choreographed and breathtakingly exciting, encouraging audiences to cheer for an unlikely yet charismatic hero as he fights for the lives of his newfound family.

Though unfolding as a comic-strip, writer-director Michael Davis recognizes the value of his actors. Perhaps his shrewdest decision is to cast Clive Owen as Mr. Smith. It's probably a coincidence that over the past two years, Owen had appeared in the Frank Miller-Robert Rodriguez's cartoonish “Sin City,” and even more of a coincidence that in Alfonso Cuaron's recent sci-fi thriller, “Children of Men,” he also played a man in charge of saving the last pregnant woman in the universe.

Just before Daniel Craig landed the James Bond role, there were rumors that Clive Owen was a finalist for the iconic character. You can see why. Like Craig, Owen is well-trained British actor with masculine looks, terrific voice, graceful movement, and penchant for delivering cynical and darkly humorous lines.

One “bad ass” meets another. Oscar nominee Giamatti (Cinderella Man, Sideways), now balding and sporting heavy glasses and a growing belly, is also well-cast. It's one of the feature's running jokes that, no matter how many times Giamatti is shot and about to die, he nonetheless always gets up, ready for the next bloody encounter with Smith, eventually engaging in a mano-a-mano with him.

There are a few mistakes, or false notes, in Giamatti's portrayal, as when Mr. Hertz is asked to caress the breast of the mother's corpse in his car. Its a vulgar, creepy sight that negates the otherwise dark humor that dominates the picture. Indeed, as if to compensate, later on, in a public park, Mr. Smith is so appalled by a mother screaming and spanking her boy that he spanks the mother herself-to the delight of her son (and ours too).

The one sour note in the film's small ensemble is Monica Bellucci (Brothers Grimm, Passion of the Christ, Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions), who doesn't look or sound as good as she usually does. In several scenes, it's shocking to realize how poorly applied her make-up is (this could be a function of the budget, too). Since her English is still heavily accented, she is given a number of sentences in her native Italian. In general, with the exception of the erotic scene, the dialogue between Mr. Smith and DQ is derivative and even unnecessarysort of a filler.

I have not seen Davis' previous directorial efforts (Monster Man, among them), but “Shoot 'Em Up” should serve as a major card for future Hollywoodassignments.

I don't wish to oversell the picture, which is mindless and totally undemanding. But I'm willing to guarantee that if you leave realism at the theater's door, forget about credibility of plot, situations, and characterization, and succumb to the violence and tons of blood that spurt out from every direction, you will have as good a time-perhaps even better–as you had when you first saw Rodriguez's stunning debut “El Mariachi” and its sequel (actually more of a remake) “Desperado.”

Cast

Mr. Smith (Clive Owen)
Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti)
Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci)
Senator Rutledge (Daniel Pilon)
Baby Oliver (Sidney Mende-Gibson, Lucas Mende-Gibson, Kaylyn Yellowlees)
Baby's Mother (Julian Richings)

Credits

A New Line Cinema release of a Montford/Murphy production.
Produced by Susan Montford, Don Murphy, Rick Benattar.
Executive producers, Douglas Curtis, Toby Emmerich, Cale Boyter.
Directed, written by Michael Davis.
Camera, Peter Pau.
Editor, Peter Amundson.
Music, Paul Haslinger.
Production designer, Gary Frutkoff.
Art director, Patrick Banister.
Set decorator, Cal Loucks.
Costume designer, Denise Cronenberg.
Sound, John J. Thomson.
Visual effects supervisor, Edward J. Irastorza.

MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 86 Minutes.