Remember that Simpsons episode where Homer buys a gun and proceeds to use it as an all-purpose tool to turn off lights, change the channel, crack nuts and so on? The protagonist of Michael Davis’s Shoot ‘Em Up, Mr. Smith, approaches firearms with a likewise sense of versatility, only Smith is a lot handier with a pistol and, as brought to sneering life by Clive Owen, a helluva lot more dashing than Homer Simpson.
The advantage to casting Clive Owen in any movie is that he may very well be the coolest man alive, and, as such, could, say, trip down a flight of stairs or collapse in a heap of tears after burning a pot roast and still spur record sales of detachable showerheads. As for the guys, gay or straight, many of us have wanted to be Clive ever since he badassed his way through Mike Hodge’s Croupier. After one film, we figured him a lock for Bond whenever Brosnan abdicated, and were therefore miffed as Hollywood chronically squandered his steely, well-beyond-giving-a-fuck presence in doomed-from-the-get dreck like Beyond Borders and King Arthur. This was no way to treat an already lauded stage actor who could so effortlessly shift from the taciturnity of McQueen to the suavity of Connery in the same role. Why exactly were the studios wasting the A-list historical epics on Orlando Bloom?
Then again, why waste Clive Owen on historical epics (a question we might soon be pondering with Elizabeth: The Golden Age)? Whatever Owen’s got (and I could burn another ten paragraphs struggling to put a finger on it), it’s modern. He is the rough-hewn brand of real man these really dreadful days demand; there’s no bullshit, no quit and nothing sentimental knocking around anywhere in his imposing 6’2" frame – which was just waiting to be draped in a black leather trench coat.
Anyone else engaging in nonstop balletic gunfights whilst clad in a black trench would come off as a Chow Yun-Fat pretender. But Owen, as ever, does his own thing with the character of Smith (aptly described as "The Angriest Man in the World"), while Davis pushes Shoot ‘Em Up so far into Looney Tunes territory that Woo never really enters into it. Davis’s movie may have been inspired by Hard Boiled (specifically, the hospital shootout finale), but the minute Owen glares at the audience in extreme close-up and chomps on a carrot, it’s live-action Termite Terrace the rest of the way. Granted, it’s bloodier and more sadistic than anything Tex Avery or Chuck Jones drew (the film’s first gunfight features Owen not only delivering a baby but shooting off the umbilical cord), but who’s to say these demented geniuses never went this far in their respective imaginations and simply thought better of sharing it with the world?
It’s not so much the bloodletting as the sadism that tests the audience, but the fact that the most repellant acts are being committed by a maniacally mugging Paul Giamatti effectively takes the edge off of the menace. Ever on the short end of their various confrontations, Giamatti’s Hertz is a combination Elmer Fudd/Yosemite Sam; while Davis saddles Hertz with a nagging wife (she’s an offscreen, via-cellphone pest), there’s nothing remotely human about the character. Meanwhile, his reason for relentlessly chasing Smith and the baby is cartoonishly contrived as well. This is an admirable quality that should be embraced by all big, dumb action movies; everything in Shoot ‘Em Up makes just enough sense to keep the narrative barreling forward. (Though I initially thought the movie might be flirting with theme by garishly lampooning both ends of the gun control debate, I’ve since given up.)
Unfortunately, most writers and directors who perpetrate the big, dumb actioner aren’t much smarter than their material. Davis, on the other hand, is at least clever enough to not waste the audience’s time with backstory explaining, for example, why Smith is so perpetually pissed off, or, worse, how he hooked up with Monica Bellucci’s lactating prostitute. These elements just are, and that’s enough so long as the gunfights keep coming and keep ramping up the ridiculousness – which, for the most part, they do (though the mid-coital shootout is an undeniable highlight).
Still, it’s impossible to imagine Shoot ‘Em Up hooking the audience without an actor as magnetic as Owen selling the joke. From McQueen to Connery to Bugs – if you don’t want to be Clive Owen now, you don’t want to live. All hail.