Any movie that makes a critic feel stupid for taking notes on it can’t be all bad, right? In Shoot ’Em Up, the early close-up of bullet shells spilling on a pregnant woman’s belly should tell you everything you need to know. Or the cutting of the umbilical cord with a point-blank gunshot. Or the hundred-some-odd guys getting brutally blown away. Or the couple of other guys getting impaled by carrots.
The person responsible for these events, the hero here, is Clive Owen, as a crack-shot gunslinger called Mr. Smith. He is a man of glum disposition and solemn virtue and nearly superhuman abilities. He is able to do away with numerous armed attackers while a) delivering that baby and b) having rough sex with an Italian harlot—although, admittedly, on separate occasions. For crying out loud, he is only one man.
Which is why it’s lucky for him that when the infant’s mother dies (from a slug to the head, natch), Mr. Smith’s favorite hooker, the aforementioned harlot, happens to be lactating. That’s her specialty, actually, in case you wanted to know. She’s played by Monica Bellucci, whom you may recall as Mary Magdalene in The Passion of the Christ. You may also recall the oblique Nativity story that was Children of Men, in which Clive Owen carried a newborn baby through hell on Earth. If so, you’re already thinking way too much for Shoot ’Em Up. Put the notebook down and step away.
This is a movie whose body count is orders of magnitude higher than its IQ, but to the target demographic that’ll probably sound like the best possible praise. This is a well-titled movie. Writer-director Michael Davis, whom you’re not at all expected to remember from Monster Man, apparently now is on a mission to make the John Woo-ification of Hollywood complete. Here he delivers more winking extreme-action comedy-thriller testimony that movies and comics and video games have amalgamated irreversibly. It’s cause for celebration or suicide, depending on your point of view. Shoot ’Em Up also seems a lot like the sort of film that Joe Carnahan (of Smokin’ Aces infamy) has gotten too self-serious to manage anymore—a picture so far over the top that it’s gleefully under the bottom.
Hence its hero, sliding around on all those squalid factory or bathroom floors, dispensing the lead and the lethal vegetables and, occasionally, the quips. “Talk about shooting your load!” is one good example, which comes, as it were, right on time. “What’s up, doc?” inevitably, is another.
Meanwhile, the Elmer to Owen’s Bugs, a snarling arch-villain called Mr. Hertz (no affiliation with the car rental company) and hammed into being by Paul Giamatti, gets to drool out a few one-liners of his own, like, “He who leads from the rear takes it in the rear.” Well, OK then.
What matters is that Hertz wants Smith’s adoptive infant dead. He wants everybody dead. But especially the baby. The details—something about a desperately corrupt presidential hopeful’s cockamamie conspiracy—are approximately as mystifying as the reasons either of these actors would ever say yes to this script, which, when not being garbled by Bellucci’s unpretty English, asks only that the two men alternate between shooting at each other and tediously explaining why they’re shooting at each other.
Now seems like a good time to mention that Shoot ’Em Up also would like to offer some penetrating social commentary. It has something to say, if you please, on the subject of gun control. Are you ready? The comment is this: “Pussies with guns” can be very annoying. Culturally destructive, even. Ah—didn’t we always suspect as much?
Shoot ’Em Up is too silly for its glib violence to seem mean, and too dumb to mean anything, or take notes on, but it’s not without wit. Consider the priorities: Televised political speechifying makes the baby cry, but death metal puts him at ease; men are disposable to Mr. Smith, but he won’t shoot dogs because he likes them. And consider the product placement: Every car our hero steals and beats on is a BMW, which performs admirably. Isn’t this how we met Owen in the first place?
Now going into its second weekend of release, Shoot ’Em Up likely will be dividing audiences—and how exciting that a film can still do that—into those who insist that it’s simply awful and those who say it’s simply awesome. We can agree that it’s simple.