By the time the piercing guitar riff on Nirvanas song Breed starts burning through the theater speakers, accompanying the first of many over-the-top gunfights, it is plainly obvious that Shoot Em Up is anything but your average action movie.
Director Michael Davis forces the proverbial tongue into the cheek at gunpoint within the first few minutes, giving us a premise that promises action: Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) sits alone on a streetside bench in the dead of night as a pregnant lady runs past, fleeing the gun-totting occupant of a car that screeches around the corner in wild, murderous pursuit, forcing Smith to intercede with suave and abrasive reluctance.
Gunfights being as stressful as they are, the girl goes into labor and delivers unto Smith a baby boy. And the more gunman that arrive, the more Smith feels obliged to protect the boy from the maniacally evil, yet strangely suburban, boss behind it all, Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti.)
Of course, given that the baby is newly born, Smith finds himself needing the attributes of a lactating prostitute he knows, Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci).
Like Chow Yun Fat spiked with Jackie Chan, Owen spends the majority of the movie leaping, sliding, hopping and running as he sprays endless loads of hot lead from a bevy of automatic and semiautomatic weapons.
Davis, who also wrote the screenplay, uses numerous disturbing close-ups of the relatively stationary Giamatti to contrast with Owens rapid movements. Resulting in many Dr. Evil-like moments of haughty confidence flecked with foiled frustration.
The action is just joyfully ludicrous. Davis does a decent job of directing the two through CGI-enhanced choreography that makes you choose to believe that one man can kill hundreds, even while saving a baby and, ahem, pleasing the ladies.
But for all its cleverness, Shoot is not quite as clever as it thinks it is.
Unfortunately, Shoot is little more than a modernization of an old dynamic a Quentin Tarantino spin on Bugs Bunnys never-ending feud with Elmer Fudd. Even before Owen utters the famous Whats up, doc? line, Davis is pitting the two leads in ultra-violent, almost cartoon-y bursts of Looney Tunes fights and chases. Complete with creative uses (overuses?) of carrots and Giamattis assertion that Owens involvement cannot go unchallenged.
It has a certain appeal, true, but in transplanting this ancient pop feud into the 21st century, Davis failed to fix the quirk that this kind of thing only works in short bursts. No one wants to watch Bugs frustrate Elmer for a full 90 minutes.
Still, there is something quite attractive about Davis ability to weather his own dud scenes well enough to preserve that primal Looney Tunes, trickster dynamic. Which in some ways makes for the most interesting subtext because no matter how bloody and violent the 150-plus deaths are, the crux of this film is nothing too new. We have been watching, and loving, Bugs smack Elmer around for more than 50 years.
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