"Shoot 'Em Up" opens with our hero Mr. Smith (Clive Owen), a gruff loner with a beta-carotene habit, pushing a carrot through the throat of a bad guy, swiftly following this act of mutilation with a nondescript quip about "taking your vegetables." Laughing yet?
If you are, man oh man, "Shoot" is the perfect little film for you. If you've read the above paragraph and felt the all-too-familiar wave of bad movie nausea, than you're much like me. There's a time for ultra-hip, self-aware, over-the-top pretense, and then there's "Shoot 'Em Up:" a creatively bankrupt aria of stupid ideas stupidly assembled with a desire to register even more stupidly than human intelligence will comprehend. Get it? It's supposed to stupid. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
For the last year or so, director Michael Davis (the man behind such duds as "100 Girls," "Monster Man," and "Eight Days a Week") has been proclaiming his love for action movies, yet "Shoot" is almost a slap in the face of the genre. The film comes from the same cesspool that germinated several other adrenaline-milking features of the last few years, including the excretal "Crank" and the vile "Running Scared." These are snot-slicked creations intended to ride the audience hard with a smug orgy of violence, only to undercut the horror with creamy black comedy so nobody goes home with a grudge. Parody is the lazy man's game, and Davis plays "Shoot" like a guy cashing in his last favors in Hollywood.
Taking Wooesque gunplay theatrics to a "Looney Tunes" level (a reference Davis crudely underlines at every turn), the film is nothing short of an orgasm of banal brutality, with bullets flying, limbs torn off, and babies put in harm's way for cheap effect. Love him or hate him, at least Woo played his cards straight, brazenly walking towards absurdity with a straight face and more squinty conviction than a spelling bee champ. He believed in his mayhem and fought to sustain his funhouse of violence, even when, at times, it was all a little too much. Hell, even caloric escapism like "The Transporter" imagines a loose reality for itself.
Davis isn't nearly that brave, and turns "Shoot" into a reckless wild comedy that scraps even the faintest hint of realism and dignity to become a flashpoint of lunacy; an acidic cartoon for those with a more inebriated sense of humor and tolerance for nincompoop direction. If previous cinematic efforts didn't already covered this ground repeatedly, perhaps "Shoot" wouldn't seem like a death row meal of dry toast and warm water. It craves the Woo seal of approval with wickedly-mounted sequences of bullet-whizzing combat, but it's afraid of facing such bold style head-on, cowardly snickering at itself time and again with a kind of ghastly self-deprecation that would make Kevin Smith wince. The film literally begs the viewer to scoff at the preposterous nature of it all, leaving nothing to root for but a hollow exercise in masturbatory filmmaking. Yay?
Oh, there's a plot somewhere inside "Shoot," but one holds the feeling, as the film steamrolls over anything in its path, that the storyline was an afterthought following the years Davis spent choreographing the action beats. Somehow he tricked Monica Bellucci (Heaven's second greatest gift to the planet) into starring as Mr. Smith's lactating hooker/pal (don't ask), permitted Paul Giamatti to slip into his earsplitting overact zone (an era I thought was finally over with "Sideways"), and looks to sneak a mutated message on gun control inside the exhaustively winky, persistently-crinkled script. That is, when he's not spinelessly backpedaling on the cardboard characters, trying, in the film's only infinitesimal moments of sincerity, to embellish their haunted souls as if anyone is going to give a flying fig how these characters earned their "life stinks" badges. Either you put the time and effort into emotional resonance or you imagine berserk gunfights occurring mid-penetration. There's no room for both.
Of course I realize that by taking the dreadfulness of "Shoot" so personally, I'm playing directly into Davis's sweaty, calloused hands, potentially revealing my critic heart to be black and shriveled when it comes to exclusionary geek-treehouse entertainment such as this. I'll take the risk, since "Shoot" is one smothering, viciously unfunny spanking machine to sit through. Last spring's "Hot Fuzz" tangoed on a similar reverential terrain, mimicking action movies to create an action movie, but it had, gasp, genuine wit to support its homages and parodies. It used, gasp gasp, actual care, concentration, and thought when serving up a hot plate of havoc rooted in established genre entertainment.
The bottom line is: "Hot Fuzz" had skill. "Shoot" has noise and a debilitating reliance on the absurd to power it through scenes of gag repetition (yeah, we get it: Mr. Smith uses carrots as a weapon), high-school-dropout screenwriting, and numbing usage of ironic cock-rock music to stroke off Davis's less perceptive audience members. If there's a Hell, an honest-to-God place of eternal torment, "Shoot 'Em Up" would make the ideal introductory video, promising a lifetime of anguish to come.
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