Someday I'm going to write a book. It's going to be about backroom deals that get good actors to star in execrable films. For instance, what kind of dirt did producers have on Clive Owen to force him to sign on for Shoot 'Em Up? What pet project did Paul Giamatii get greenlit by using this movie as leverage? Because it's hard for me to believe that someone read Michael Davis' script for this and thought, "Oh, yes, this is a movie I must do."
For those of you who found The Transporter too subtle*, or if you've decided that The Boondock Saints is the Godfather of the millennial generation, then it's quite possible that you will see in Shoot 'Em Up what I so clearly did not. My thesaurus doesn't have enough synonyms for the word "bad" to adequately get me through this review. I was squirming in agony for just about every frame of this awful, awful movie, and having to relive it just to write this is causing me to shudder the way one normally shudders when imagining having a prostate exam or passing kidney stones.
Here's the skinny: Clive Owen is the hero. He's in the wrong place at the wrong time for living a quiet life, but the right place at the right time when it comes to saving a pregnant woman from thugs that multiply faster than Madrox the Multiple Man. These leather jacket-wearing dudes are lead by the maniacal genius Paul Giamatti, who likes cracking bad jokes in between showing off how smart he is. Clive delivers the woman's baby before she takes one in the head, and manages to get away with the wee bairn in a hail of bullets and impossible stunts.
I was actually ready to go with Shoot 'Em Up at that point, because I kept expecting the fourth wall to break. Surely, this wasn't really the movie I was watching. Clive Owen is playing a bad actor in a bad action movie, and the reveal is just around the corner. Someone's going to shout "Cut!" and like Bugs Bunny, whom he clearly emulates, Clive's going to turn to his audience and say, "Gee, ain't I a stinker?" Right?
Well, kind of. Clive Owen is performing badly in a bad action movie, but it really is Shoot 'Em Up and there is no breaking away from it. Strap in, because it's all downhill.
In order to save this little baby, Clive enlists a lactating hooker played by Monica Bellucci, and Giamatti chases them all over town, moving from one ludicrous situation to another. There is no point dissecting the plot, because it is intended to be ludicrous. I get that. Michael Davis, who directed as well as wrote this garbage fest, even wants us to think he's being clever by constructing multiple gags to let us know he's in on the joke. He's not just making a bad action movie, he's making fun of bad action movies. Shoot 'Em Up is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for people who huff paint, laced with left-over hipster irony that went out of style when those guys realized the elephant ears they stretched their lobes into weren't going to snap back into their original shapes.
The thing is, I'm just not buying what Davis is selling. In order to play at that kind of satire, your movie has to be smart, and Shoot 'Em Up is not smart. It has no class, nor does it have any real wit. It's dumb, dumb, and then dumb some more. What it has instead of brains is a solid rock of meanness. Shoot 'Em Up is a vicious movie, escalating its graphic violence and cruel jokes until the screams of sadism become a cacophony of torture, women debasing themselves (and being debased--how many dead pregnant women is too much?), and dislodged eyeballs. This film is a comedy in the way Hostel II and Captivity were movies about relationships. By the final bloodbath, Clive Owen isn't even trying for groaning one-liners anymore. There's no point. If the movie has done its job, we'll be drowning in our own drool, unable to laugh for all the gasping for air. Hours later, I'm still trying to wash the sickness off of me.
It's not that I'm offended by Shoot 'Em Up. One, I'm not namby pamby enough where I'm offended all that easy. Two, being offensive requires that you also be clever, something I've already noted this movie is not. If I'm anything, I'm insulted that the people involved in putting this atrocity together decided that we should all be so easy to please that they tried so little. Most of the work was done when they put the cast together, and all anyone had to do was deliver on the promise of the title. When it comes down to it, though, the action isn't even that good. Davis constructs several sequences that are like old Jackie Chan routines with a touch of Rube Goldberg, but rather than actually pulling them off with real stunts and complicated set designs, all of the running and jumping gunplay is done with computers and editing trickery. He's robbed us of the visceral thrill he promised us when he named his movie Shoot 'Em Up. I know a lot of people will likely compare this to a video game, but I don't want to blame the poor gamers for this waste of time. Besides, those guys at least know you have to actually be involved in what's happening for it to be fun.
I could go on and on ranting about how much I hated this movie, and probably take up more of your time than you would have to spend watching it for yourself (though, I'll at least not charge you for the dishonor). Instead, I'll leave you with a snippet of one of my favorite film reviews of all time. It's by Harlan Ellison, and I have it in front of me, contained in a book of his film criticism called Harlan Ellison's Watching. It's Harlan's take on Robocop**, and he gives that movie many thrusts of his dagger, but the one that has always stuck with me is his labeling it as "wetwork," which he then defines as, "the 'intelligence community's' currently fashionable doublespeak for the dirtiest of deeds, the act of assassination, termination with extreme unction, or whatever."
Such a label could also be applied to Shoot 'Em Up. "Or whatever" indeed. As Harlan told his readers in relation to Robocop, "Stay away from this one at all costs."
* And for the record, I actually enjoyed The Transporter quite a bit. Make of that what you will.
** Also for the record, I pretty much agree with Ellison's feelings on Robocop, though my reaction softened in the twenty years between viewing it at the theatre and on DVD. Maybe in 2027, I'll be okay with Shoot 'Em Up, too.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.