I love Clive Owen. I love Paul Giamatti. And I love--actually, given that my wife is also a contributor to this blog, I will leave to readers' imaginations how I feel about Monica Bellucci.
I did not, however, love Shoot 'Em Up. Or even like it. If one were feeling generous, one could say that director Michael Davis's homage/parody/distillation of the action genre succeeds on its own terms. But I'm not, so I'll say instead that the terms on which it succeeds are set far too low.
As its title suggests, Shoot 'Em Up is not terribly interested in narrative coherence, character motivation, or moral theory. Rather, the questions it poses tend to be along the lines of "Could you kill a guy by ramming a carrot into his mouth so hard it comes out the back of his neck?"; "What if you stabbed him in the eye with it instead?"; and "If you shot and killed a bunch of skydivers in mid-flight before their chutes opened, would they scatter across a wide area, or all splat on the ground right next to each other?"
Fine, so far. If anything, too many action movies lard themselves up with windy philosophizing (say, 300) when their only real purpose is to explore the various injuries human malice is capable of inflicting on human flesh.
So Shoot 'Em Up careens heedlessly from bullet-ridden set piece to bullet-ridden set piece. The villains sneer cruelly before receiving the inevitable cap in the head; Clive Owen's hero (known only as "Smith") drops gleeful F-bombs ("Fuck you, you fuckin' fuckers") and Ahnoldesque puns ("So much for wearing your seatbelt," after he's launched himself through the windshield of a car like a human projectile) as he rids the world of untold thousands of Bad Men; and Monica Bellucci tousles irritably with the English language. Guns are ubiquitous: In addition to their more typical uses, they are also put to work on tasks as varied as cutting umbilical cords and spinning playground carousels.
For some, the mix will work--though to up the odds, I'd recommend waiting to see it with several male friends, in someone's basement, with a substantial quantity of liquor present. Otherwise, like me, you may find that the humor's not really very funny; the tough-guy dialogue is remarkably uninspired; and the violence, while occasionally inventive--the car-launched, human-bullet bit was pretty good, and a scene in which Owen shoots a half-dozen baddies while in the midst of unexpectedly acrobatic coitus is probably almost as funny as it was on paper--is more often notable for its excess than its imagination. Even the film's cruel streak, in which it takes particular delight--the murdered mothers, the broken fingers--feels a little rote by this time.
Owen is fine, but he suggests again--as he did in Sin City--that he's more comfortable playing cool, cerebral hoods than participating in hyperviolent camp. (Where have you gone, Kurt Russell?) Paul Giamatti, as always, does his level best as the chief baddie, but he's hampered by dialogue ("And let that be a reminder never to fail me again") and gags (a wife who keeps calling his cell phone to remind him to make it to his son's birthday party) too lame for even his gifts to rescue. And Bellucci is as unlovely as I've seen her be--and while that still places her somewhere in the top .001 percent of the population, it's nonetheless a disappointment.
In the end, what's most frustrating about Shoot 'Em Up is that it would have been so easy to make the film much, much better. A ten percent improvement in the dialogue alone would have improved the movie by 50 percent. Even without being particularly clever, the plot twists could have been a bit less howlingly obvious. (When Owen shoots, and apparently kills, Giamatti early in the film, can you guess what the latter is wearing under his shirt? How do you imagine Owen will ever get a gun to work when we're told--repeatedly--that it can only be activated by its owner's thumbprint?)
When Owen finally meets the shadowy men behind the nefarious plot (they're trying to get an orphan baby whom Owen had rescued--oh, never mind) it turns out--surprise!--that they are gun manufacturers intent on preventing the passage of gun control legislation. Owen has an angry line about them protecting the "right to go deer hunting with an Uzi" and, when he kills the CEO, taunts "Aren't guns fucking great?" He has, of course, by this time expended more ammunition by himself than is needed to settle most civil wars, and though the irony is (one hopes) intentional, it's no less inane for it. Kiss kiss, bang bang.