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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The poster for "Shoot 'Em Up" brings to mind the work of John Woo before he started wasting his talent in Hollywood: Clive Owen, ever the new icon of modern, tough-guy cool, firing two pistols midair a la Chow Yun Fat.

Like Woo's films, the action is depicted so beautifully it could be considered a ballet. It also helps that the movie was shot by Peter Pau, the cinematographer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Woo's "The Killer."

However, the similarities end there, as "Shoot 'Em Up" eschews the typical Woo narrative of heroism and honor in favor of a violent romp in which Owen, with the help of a lactating prostitute (Monica Bellucci), must save a mysterious baby from an army of gunmen led by Paul Giamatti. In other words, it's "Children of Men" as conceived by someone who has watched "Crank" too many times.

Owen carries the entire film on his broad shoulders as the angry, misanthropic Smith. The genius of his performance is that he makes Smith as real as his characters in "Children of Men" or "Closer," always grounded and completely believable while taking part in the most audacious action set pieces as if unaware of their absurdity. When his character plummets from a plane while shooting skydiving killers, one never gets the irritating sense that he's winking at the audience.

With a title like "Shoot 'Em Up," it's very clear that one need not take the proceedings seriously. Writer/Director Michael Davis treats the film like a Bugs Bunny cartoon with firearms, complete with Owen constantly munching on carrots and Giamatti as Elmer Fudd. All it's missing is people being crushed by anvils. It can be hard to swallow, especially if you were hoping for an action movie that has the slightest regard for the laws of physics, tightly written plot development or typical boring film exposition.

By the ending credits, thematic elements became the biggest question. Is the film a pastiche of John Woo and Looney Tunes, or is it a satire of American gun culture and violence? Michael Davis, openly mocking both stances on gun control, never takes a firm position himself, instead pointing out such oddities as our fascination with violence from birth, the supposed correlation between violence and music, and the paradox of safety mechanisms on guns. "This is the only safety," Smith says, extending his trigger finger. The only way the film works as something other than a live-action cartoon is to look at it as a satire of the absurdity of it all. If there's one thing that "Shoot 'Em Up" definitely is, it's absurd.

In the theater, as I listened to the laughter at the over-the-top violence, I began to think "Shoot 'Em Up" doubled as a cinematic Rorschach test, holding up a mirror to its bloodthirsty audience with one hand while distracting them via comedic violence with the other. What does it say about you if you laughed at an image of Clive Owen walking across a landscape littered with splattered, gun-toting skydivers?

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