As a lifelong aficionado of action films, I always get excited when something new and daring comes along. In the 80’s it was the birth of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series, films that became progressively cartoonish but still brought much needed energy and humor to a stale genre. In the 90’s it was the discovery of the breathtakingly beautiful work of director John Woo, who turned gun fights into an artistic landscape with plenty of two-gun wielding heroes and slow-motion shots of pigeons. More recently, the successful John Wick trilogy has fascinated a whole new generation of fans with an emphasis on long takes, skillful choreography, and stunt people who should earn gold medals.
When I saw 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up for the first time, I knew I had seen something different and possibly genre changing. Sadly, the film was largely ignored and doesn’t even seem to have a cult following. Having recently watched it again, I do think we all missed out on something revelatory, think John Wick on mescaline.
From writer-director Michael Davis (best known for the goofily charming Eight Days a Week) comes an action film like no other. Sure, it borrows and steals from everything from Hong Kong cinema to the films of Robert Rodriguez to video games but does so with an inventive style, game actors, and non-stop kinetic energy. The film stars Clive Owen as a man of seemingly no consequence. He may be a vagabond, he may be an amateur carrot farmer, he may an experienced gunsmith who lost his wife and child to gun violence, we never get a definitive answer, nor do we really care. As the films starts, he is thrust into action when a pregnant woman is being hunted by armed henchmen. Owens’ Mr. Smith reluctantly helps the damsel in distress and delivers her baby while picking off bad guys a la James Bond. The fact that in real life Owens had been passed over for the 007 role that went to Daniel Craig is kneaded into the film with a quick joke about the Walther PPK (aka Bond’s gun of choice).
Unable to save the new mother, Smith finds himself as the protector for her newborn whom he dubs “Oliver.” Hot on his heels is an endless army of well-armed thugs under the ruthless leadership of Paul Giamatti’s Mr. Hertz. Yes, Paul Giamatti who makes a surprisingly effective and entertaining villain trying to squash Mr. Smith, collect Oliver and get home for his own son’s upcoming birthday. Giamatti chews the scenery with aplomb while implicitly winking at the camera that he of all actors has been cast against type. Also along for the ride is the voluptuously sexy Monica Belluci as DQ (yes, it took me until now to figure out her initials), a world-weary prostitute who just happens to be lactating. We get a glimpse of her pain as well, in between furiously staged gun fights.
Shoot ‘Em Up could easily be dismissed as cartoony and immature but I defy anyone with just a little inner child left in them to not be in awe of the thought and technical skill that went into some of the most ingenious actions scenes I have ever seen. From the escape from Mr. Smith’s apartment, to Owen and Belluci having sex during a gun fight, to a warehouse showdown with Owen “marionetting” vast weaponry to an out of this world shoot out when Owen parachutes from a plane only to be pursued by an array of armed aerialists, Shoot ‘Em Up lives up to its title and contains zero ounces of subtlety.