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Shoot 'Em Up   B+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Davis
Writer: Michael Davis
Cast: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Daniel Pilon, Julian Richings.

Review by Rob Vaux

We critics love condemning movies we find immoral. It makes for good copy, works us up into a really healthy lather, and hey, why should the Christian right have all the fun? Certainly, there's no shortage of targets at the multiplex -- steaming piles of cinematic demagoguery (both high budget and low) that pander to base instincts for no purpose other than a few greasy bucks. So why, then, does a brazenly ethics-free effort like Shoot 'Em Up engender so much relative goodwill? Why do critics condemn something like War, while lionizing something like this? Studio bosses may ponder the answers with furrowed brows, wondering how one sleazy piece of crap can become so beloved while another is beaten to a pulp. The answer, like so many others in this business, lies in the details.

For one thing, Shoot 'Em Up instills its constant barrage of mayhem with considerable imagination. Sure, yeah, it's just a bunch of gunfights, but what nifty, gorgeous, cacklingly iconoclastic gunfights they are. It's one thing to show mysterious Ultimate Bad Ass Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) killing a man with a carrot, but for writer-director Michael Davis, that just isn't enough. He comes up with half a dozen ways to kill someone with a carrot -- each one cooler than the last. Similar inspiration accompanies Smith's endless dispensation of various gangs of faceless thugs vainly attempting to whack him, his fetish-hooker accomplice (Monica Bellucci), and the mysterious newborn they need to protect for reasons that, frankly, don't matter a bit. The baddies act under the orders of the aptly named Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti), a family man with a nagging wife at home who just happens to kill other people for a living. His bug-eyed exasperation at Smith's stubborn ability to stay alive neatly embodies the film's second great strength: no one here is taking this seriously for a minute.

The overtly satirical tone sends the action uproariously over the top, allowing Davis to stretch the limits of what we'll accept to their furthest possible point. Though Shoot 'Em Up apes the likes of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino in that regard, it also has far less ambition than they do: content simply to ridicule the goofier aspects of the genre without presuming to transcend it. Its wit lies mainly in the conceptual stages, concerned primarily with outlandish choreography and wink-wink verbal puns (Smith ends every fight by spouting an obvious quip, while noting important clues in the midst of wildly improbable combat with a nonchalant "Hey, that's funny..."). The villains are all unspeakably evil -- topped by Giamatti, devouring the scenery whole and relishing every bite -- while Smith's mysterious loner persona becomes the subject of an ongoing joke when his adversaries think they've figured out who he really is. He has some great low-rent MacGyver moments too -- jury-rigging booby traps and using an extended locking mechanism triggered by a tame rat to secure his modest dwelling -- in addition to insane firearms skills as enjoyable to watch as they are absurd to rationalize. Though it lacks the intelligence of last spring's Hot Fuzz or the cinematic complexity of Tarantino and his ilk, Shoot 'Em Up invests its various gags with such fearsomely cheerful energy that its modest goals fly into its hands seemingly without effort.

It also loves to push buttons. Child endangerment, cruelty to animals, sexual proclivities found only in the murkiest corners of the internet... if you disapprove of it, it's probably here -- in living color and hi-res slow-motion to make sure you don't miss a single frame. Davis manages to have his cake and eat it too in that regard, for even as Shoot 'Em Up finds countless ways to outrage any prudes in attendance, it quietly mocks the rest of us for enjoying such naughtiness. We're all horrible, horrible people for allowing a film like this to exist, but dammit, it's just so much twisted, evil fun that the only sensible reaction to it is to dive in with both feet. Its September 7th release date is a little disingenuous. This is a Dog Days movie, destined for the pits of August where such street-corner hustling would feel supremely at home. Check the better angels of your nature at the door: they definitely won't approve of Shoot 'Em Up. That doesn't mean you should emulate their example, however. Otherwise, you're apt to miss the best guilty pleasure of the summer... arriving just a couple of weeks too late.

Review published 09.06.2007.

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