A few years ago, I was speaking to a Manga-obsessed friend of mine about the state of action films.
"I've got a billion cool ideas," he said confidently, going on to list several ludicrous action scenes with absolutely zero basis in reality, including - but not limited to - a gunfight while falling through the air and a gunfight during a sex scene. Naturally, I laughed in his face (well, it was the internet, so I LOL'd him silly) and thought no more of it. Cut to present day, and Clive Owen blasts into cinemas with Shoot 'Em Up, one of the only action films that can legitimately be called 'zany'. Looks like someone from New Line has been tapping up my emails, because it's the most ridiculously OTT, balls-to-the-wall, shoot-first-and-don't-ask-questions-later action film ever made. Think John Woo meets Looney Tunes and you've got the right balance: power down the brain, butter up the popcorn and enjoy. It makes Hard Boiled look like a dippy egg.
Owen is gruff loner Mr. Smith, who begrudgingly gets involved in something big when he sees a gang of gun-toting goons pursuing a distressed pregnant girl. When said sprog is dropped, Owen becomes the reluctant surrogate father, defending the tiny toddler from the bullets of Paul Giamatti's eviller-than-thou bad guy Mr. Hertz (geddit?). While he's hounded by Hertz's henchmen and their ever-expanding arsenal, Smith hooks up with hooker friend DQ (Belluci), a big-mammed madame who pops out her milkers out for the highest bidder. The makeshift momma and poppa must dodge a barrage of bullets while they figure out why junior is top of Hertz's hit list.
If the title didn't clue you in, the opening shoot-out definitely will - Shoot 'Em Up is an action movie played for laughs. Owen's straight-faced hero and Giamatti's boo hiss bad guy set the tone: the more they snarl, grimace and furrow their brows, the funnier it gets. Far from being a spoof on the genre, Shoot 'Em Up is an action movie with the flab removed - with no more than maybe ten minutes of exposition, you're left with a series of interconnecting money shots, each one more gooey than the last. Gun porn? Certainly - it was originally labelled 'John Woo's wet dream' - but it's also a logical progression from dumb fuck action flicks like Die Hard 4.0
, the difference being that Shoot 'Em Up knows it's ridiculous - with complete and utter suspension of disbelief, it zips along without the weight of reality dragging it down. Smokin' Aces
wanted to be this movie. Crank wanted to be this movie. John Woo wishes he had the licence to be this dumb. Jason Bourne
would kill to be this funny.
Owen makes for a smoky-eyed and subdued protagonist, a man whose dialogue is made up almost entirely of snappy one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks. Mr. Smith's guns are like extra appendages, while every gunshot is ejaculatory - this is never more evident than in the sex-scene shoot-out ("Talk about shooting your load," deadpans a post-coitus Clive). A caricature of every action hero ever written, Smith is a man's man's man - just watch as he puts his infant payload on the floor of a filth-infested bathroom while he lovingly dries off his damp gun on the baby-changing table. Even a hint of pretension would be a slug in his side, but Owen is on fine form, spitting bile and venom at every opportunity ("You're the angriest man in the world," says Belluci) while chomping on carrots in an obvious homage to Bugs Bunny and his cartoon brethren. Only a fool could take him seriously.
Giamatti makes for an interesting foil; more dastardly than Dick, he's as cartoonish a villain as Mr. Burns and will be picking scenery out of his teeth for months. With that weasel face and that date-rapist beard, Giamatti is one of the best character actors out there, and if he can switch from the kind of subdued performance he gave in Lady In The Water to the 'roided-up insanity he exudes in Shoot 'Em Up, then he's got a far greater range than most. With Owen playing the no-nonsense straight man, it's up to Giamatti to provide the comic relief, and he does so with great vigour - it's to his credit that you almost start to feel for a character who's little more than a wannabe baby-killer: "Do we suck or is this guy really that good?" he yells in desperation, after yet another body-free bullet-fest.
Shoot 'Em Up just doesn't give you time to be bored: you're never more than a few minutes away from the next balletic gun battle, all of which are directed with panache and edited like they've evolved from a million comic-book storyboards. Someone show this to Charlton Heston - the gun-loving gipper will fill his nappy. Sure, the characters often play second fiddle to the gun-play while the script leans a little too heavily on cliché at points, but what did you expect? A period drama? Shoot 'Em Up is hokum of the highest order, but it's fast, loud and funny as hell - I don't know about you, but that's why I go to the movies. In fact, it left me thinking just where action movies can go from here - John Woo's recent efforts look about as edgy as Dora The Explorer in comparison. I asked my clairvoyant friend from paragraph one about we can expect to see in the action genre in the near future. "A gunfight on a high-speed train," he replied. "And the bullets bend." Any takers?