By: Tyler Baker
The wonder in Michael Davis’ bullet ballet, Shoot ‘Em Up, is its ability to release the audience from a thick-coated plot and the pains of trite character development to entice, engross and entertain. The film follows its own code of conduct: a warrior’s code of filmmaking as writer/director Davis (100 Girls, Monster Man) propels himself from the basement of B-films to mainstream mayhem. The verdict is a violent and visually strutting nugget of gold.
In optioning to keep the story at a minimum, Davis provides a quick entrance into the action that never quits kicking until the credits roll. A man with a gun saves a baby and a prostitute while being pursued by another man with a gun. The cycle of blood and bodies goes round, and everything in-between the plot is either a gunfight or an offensive one-liner.
What the film does best under Davis’s command is the action, which is the obvious nature of its 84-minute run. The tone of the film is like heavy metal – fast, loud and filled with chaotic screams. Much of what Davis does within the constraints of the film steps away from his earlier work (Prehysteria! 2 and 3, for example) and shifts more towards his 2003 film, Monster Man. The result is an ailing aesthetic pleasure with shotgun blasts of blood and unremitting adrenaline.
Clive Owen, last seen saving the infertile world in Children of Men, stars as the film’s inevitable hero, Mr. Smith. Everything about Smith is a mystery, but as the film moves from shootout to shootout, Smith’s character and past leak their way out from Owen’s stone but certain face. Where Smith begins, on a bus stop bench at night, his intentions are unclear. He throws himself into conflict with a slight sigh of annoyance and duty. As he goes along, Smith becomes a hard-ass vehicle for justice and attitude.
What makes Owen’s character priceless is his elective plight along with his constant hatred for even the pettiest of injustices. Throughout the film, Smith points out a number of everyday inconsiderate citizens (an able driver parked in a handicap spot, a driver changing lanes without a turn signal, and – of course – men with ponytails). Smith exacts revenge in his own unique, stylized way, pleasing our subconscious and settling our need to vent for the menial annoyances that scrape under our skin daily. This turns Smith into more than just a gun champion or a black ops vigilante; he becomes the Robin Hood who would have punched out the Sheriff of Nottingham’s tax collector.
On the other side of the screen is Hertz (ironically), played by a grizzly Paul Giamatti (Sideways, American Splendor). Here we see Giamatti get his first authentic chance to pay homage to the hard villains of cinema’s most demented noir past. Davis uses Hertz as his outlet for mangled jokes that all action fans live for. He also becomes an entity of the undead, constantly surviving every failed encounter with Smith.
Giamatti performs perfectly as the Elmer Fudd to Owen’s Bugs Bunny. Monica Bellucci, most notable from the final two Matrix films, portrays the prostitute Donna Quintano, helping to humbly humanize Smith. Her presentation can only be considered so-so; it’s integrated enough with the film that the audience can overlook it and still enjoy themselves.
Under the film’s showmanship is a suspense-driven gonzo gunslinger flick with gratuitous amounts of blood and bullets. For the action fandom, it is a wonderland, but the film puts forth no Oscar-worthy performances. It will, however, entertain. Davis has written a strong-willed script with guts and glory both intact, and while the plot may sometimes be torpid, the action gives it a violent shake every few minutes. As Giamatti’s character says, “Violence is one of the most fun things to watch.” This is intrinsically evident in Shoot ‘Em Up.