Sunday, February 9, 2020

Shoot 'Em Up Isn't Totally Consistent But It Is Quite Fun

One of the most distinctive features about Shoot 'Em Up is how thoroughly committed it is to its own brand of grim-faced madness. This is reflected in the protagonist, Smith (Clive Owen), who prides himself on constantly being a grouch. He's not so much a glass-half-empty guy as he is a guy who thinks the glass itself is so stupid it should be smashed on the ground. Smith is irritated by every person who crosses his path, the world is rife with hypocrites and rudeness. The movie similarly sees the planet Earth and all its inhabitants as mostly just fodder for high-level carnage. Sometimes that endlessly nihilistic routine gets old, but more often than not, Shoot 'Em Up does hit the sweet spot of enjoyable grimy R-rated action.

Like many action films, it all starts with a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smith was just eating some dinner on a bus stop when he saw a pregnant woman being chased by a gun-toting gangster. While stepping in to protect her, things get out of control really quick. More people show up to take out the woman and then the lady gives birth to a child before dying. Smith now takes the kid with him, hoping to toss it off to former flame Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci). That effort proves to be more complicated than expected thanks to gangster Hertz (Paul Giamatti) being on Smith's tail. If Hertz thinks Smith is going down without a fight, oh boy, he's in for a surprise.

Written and directed by Michael Davis, Shoot 'Em Up establishes exactly what kind of movie it is from the get-go with an opening chase scene that features plenty of blood and culminates in Smith and Hertz taking turns firing out letters in a gigantic neon so that they can send profane messages to each other. Violent silliness laced with a contempt for everyday unpleasantness is the name of the game here. Davis' writing sometimes falls into the trap many of these jaded too-cool-for-school action titles inadvertently step into, namely that they end up treading into overly predictable narrative turns that undercut its supposedly bold tendencies. It's hard to call yourself edgy when dabbling in plot details that are more on the predictable side of things. It's like calling your rock band boundary-pushing when all your band sings is covers of Wiggles tunes.

Luckily, the majority of Shoot 'Em Up manages to deliver competent-enough entertainment that can justify its attitude-heavy aesthetic. Much of this entertainment comes from the performances, particularly the two lead male turns. Clive Owen convincingly sells Smith being totally done with everyone and everything around him, you can practically see the contempt for the surrounding world steaming off of him. When it comes time to engage in action sequences, Owen really delivers an appropriately intimidating presence. While we're on the topic of his character, I also like that Davis conveys Smith's masterful skills as an assassin not just through guns, there are a bunch of skilled booby traps that cleverly communicating what a pro we're dealing with here.

That kind of pro is the fixation of the best part of Shoot 'Em Up, Hertz, perfectly played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti has played his fair share of tightly wound-up guys in numerous movies over the years, always to successful results and usually in the confines of grounded dreams. Applying that persona to an action movie villain turns out to be a stroke of genius, there's so much amusement to be had in this tough-guy gangster acting like a normal person, one just as interested in picking out the right birthday card for his eight-year-old son as he is in killing Smith. That juxtaposition is wonderfully executed in the hands of Giamatti while this performer also uses this role as a chance to deliver some of the most enjoyable line deliveries in all of Shoot 'Em Up.

Giamatti and Owen are usually at the center of action set pieces that show where Davis really excels as a writer. While sometimes hindered in being as visceral as they could be by circa. 2007 CGI effects, Shoot 'Em Up finds plenty of creative and fun ways for Smith to dispose of baddies. Similarly delightful are the assorted environments shoot-outs take place in. We follow Smith everywhere from the interior of a high-profile jet to a church outfitted into a brothel, all of them being home to plenty of memorable kills and some wryly delivered one-liners from Clive Owen. There are times where rampant chaos in Shoot 'Em Up misses the mark but the parts that hit a bullseye, like Paul Giamatti's terrific performance, are something truly special.

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