Muzzle flash! Muzzle flash! Muzzle flash!
Guns, guns, guns. Just what is it about guns? Obviously, there’s the intimidation factor. Someone with a gun is instantly scary, because that person is one flick of the trigger away from killing you. But in our culture, guns are more often portrayed as cool. Why? They represent power. Whoever has the gun is in charge. And if Dr. Freud were here, he might have a few things to say about guns and sexuality.
Guns have become more sleek and stylish than ever thanks to John Woo and other Hong Kong filmmakers who crafted the so-called “bullet ballet” action scenes. This is when gunfights are more than just guys pluggin’ other guys, but it instead becomes so stylized and choreographed that it becomes a dance of sorts, or as Shoot ‘Em Up writer/director Michael Davis calls it, “a Cirque Du Soleil of death.”
That’s the tone for Shoot ‘Em Up—one big bullet ballet, from start to finish. If cotton candy mega-violence is your thing, you might just dig this one.
A man known only as Smith (Clive Owen, Children of Men) is sitting on a bus bench minding his own business when he sees a pregnant woman chased by a gunman. Against his better judgment, Smith manages to save the baby after blowing away a small army of gun-toting killers, led by the psychotic Hertz (Paul Giamatti, The Illusionist).
With a small army of well-armed thugs after the baby, Smith takes the child to D.Q. (Monica Bellucci, Brotherhood of the Wolf), a prostitute, to help him care for the child. Now, Smith must find out why this baby is so important, and why so many Kevlar-clad goons are willing to die for it.
This is pretty much everything a gun fetishist could hope for (I’m assuming). Forget about Owen and Giamatti—the guns are the movie’s stars. Almost every scene involves a gun in one way or another. When the characters aren’t blasting away at each other with their guns, then they’re talking about guns, or waving their guns around as they uncover secrets. There are big guns, small guns, machine guns, rifles, and pretty much any kind of gun you could think of. There are even futuristic “fingerprint” guns that fire only for their owners. Every big action scene, and there are many, centers around the guns. There is a big car chase, but it’s one in which the guns play a major role. Also, there are no scenes in which the characters drop their guns and for no reason revert to kung fu instead.
Writer/director Michael Davis (Eight Days a Week) says the work of John Woo, especially Hard Boiled, is a big influence on this movie. I’d wager that video games are another big influence. In many first-person shooters, the guns can be used not just to off bad guys, but also to alter the environment to player’s favor. I mean, weren’t you thrilled the first time you found out what shooting the barrels could do in Doom? (Provided you weren’t standing right next to the barrels at the time, that is.) Since then, guns in video games can be used to push buttons, throw switches, unravel ropes, clear away obstacles, and much more. Shoot ‘Em Up employs similar reasoning. In the world of the movie, you can shoot two legs off a table, turning it into a shield for yourself to hide behind, or a ramp you can run and jump off. This makes the action a little more exciting and clever, because Smith defeats his enemies by more than just shooting at them. He has to think of ways to use his environment, combined with his gun, before he can save the day.
Honestly, I’m still having trouble accepting Clive Owen as a hardcore action hero, because every time I see him, all I can think of is the spineless weenie he played in Closer. That being said, he made for a fine, stoic man of mystery here. Davis is smart enough to give Smith plenty of little quirks, too, which Owen handles nicely. Paul Giamatti portrays the villain as more driven and on the edge of exploding, but he too gets his share of personality ticks to play with, and most of the movie’s dark humor comes from him. Bellucci has a tougher job, as the clichéd prostitute with a heart of gold. Mostly, she’s here to ask the questions the audience would normally ask, like “What’s that supposed to mean?” and “Where are we going?”
Note that this movie is an endangered species: An R-rated action flick. This means most of the kills are bloody ones, with the red stuff spurting all over the place. Swear words are everywhere, not to mention the occasional dirty limerick. There’s just an overall sense of sleaze and debauchery running through the whole movie. These characters slither along the world’s seedy underbelly, which makes an innocent baby a potent dramatic object for everyone to chase after. There’s a lot of dark humor throughout as well, so the tone of the movie never gets too nihilistic, but instead it’s tough and silly at the same time.
The audio and video on the DVD are more than serviceable, with a sharp widescreen picture and immersive, booming sound. Davis provides a lively commentary track, and although he describes practically every scene as his “favorite,” he also has a lot to say about filmmaking in general, and how he tried to sidestep as many action movie clichés as he could. The “Bullet Ballet” featurette is a good one, taking viewers through the story’s creation, then casting, and then into the many stunts and special effects. There are a few deleted scenes, followed by the original trailers and trailers for other New Line releases.
The best of the extras, though, is the original animatic, created by Davis on his home computer, which he then used to sell the movie to the studio. It’s 15 minutes long, and the whole thing is here in all its squiggly glory. It’s basically all the major action scenes in the movie, except animated in a rough, black and white cartoon. It’s a lot of fun to watch, not to mention impressive as to how much of this goofy little ‘toon made it into the final product.
Realism is not a friend to this movie. In fact, whenever this movie enters the room, realism becomes terrified and jumps out the nearest window. Although it’s all very tongue-in-cheek and obviously not meant to be taken seriously, nitpickers will no doubt exhaust themselves pointing out all the physical impossibilities in Shoot ‘Em Up. Like, can you even shoot a gun while skydiving? And if you could, how on Earth would you aim? Or, how is it that Smith jumps down what looks like 12 stories and, simply by landing on another guy’s corpse, isn’t hurt at all? Or, since when could a small vegetable break through a man’s skull? And if the action physics are questionable, check out the baby physics. This is like Willow, in which we’re supposed to believe a bundle of blankets has a baby inside it, even though the characters run around with it during action scenes as if it’s light as a feather and it never squirms or wiggles.
A little more seriously, I’ve read some online complaints calling Shoot ‘Em Up “misogynistic,” and I can see where those folks are coming from. All the female characters are prostitutes, victims, or in one case, a nagging wife. I know no one’s going to sit down and watch a movie called Shoot ‘Em Up expecting a thoughtful and even-balanced dialogue on gender equality issues, but still.
I predict that this movie will separate action movie fans. I personally thought it was amusing in a dark sort of way, but I’m sure other viewers will roll their eyes and think this one’s nothing but pure stupidity disguised as action.
Davis’s goal was to set a specific tone for the movie, one that’s mean and tough, but also gleeful and over-the-top. If you’re looking for an action movie drenched in cynical ridiculousness, this is the one. If you’re looking for a truly plot- and character-based adrenaline rush, you might want to look elsewhere.