Monday, January 7, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up

Director: Michael Davis
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Belucci, Stephen McHattie
Running Time: 86 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

Whenever I review a film I ask myself one question first: DOES IT SUCCEED IN WHAT IT'S TRYING TO DO? For those perplexed by the star rating you see above I'd like to refer you back to that question. I am aware that Shoot 'Em Up is the most polarizing film of 2007 and I'm sure there are more than quite a few readers who would like to reach their hands through the computer screen and strangle me right now. But even those who absolutely despise the film can't argue that for what it is it's flawless. You may hate it, but you know it really gets the job done. It's the most appropriately titled film of the year and just seeing the title you probably know whether you're the type of person who would enjoy it. Who says there's no truth in advertising?

This is an overindulgent exercise in fearless, guerilla cinema and a glimpse into what happens when a studio takes off the handcuffs and removes any obstacles that could possibly make a movie not work. Everyone has free reigns and you almost feel guilty watching two actors of this high a caliber having so much damn fun. It's as if someone took Clive Owen's character from Children of Men and inserted him into Smokin' Aces, turning up the volume to the maximum degree.

The film is 86 minutes but it feels more like 6. It's so slickly edited and masterfully directed that excitement engulfs the screen in every single frame and not a moment drags. It may be the quickest movie I ever sat through and cinematic equivalent of injecting yourself with pure sugar. It's a crying shame that most actually took the film at face value and missed the funniest spoof of the action genre in years. Only it's smarter and more exciting than any of the John Woo films it's spoofing and could work not only as the best action movie of the year, but the best comedy. I was laughing so hard I was literally crying. It's pure joy from start to finish.

Opponents of this film have argued that if you took away the spectacular action sequences and the ballet of bullets that fill its running time you'd be left with nothing. Of course you would. That's the point. Let's be honest here: You don't go into a movie called Shoot 'Em Up expecting a deep meditation on life. But you know what? The plot is actually very good, the dialogue is sharp and there are some surprises. The movie opens with the mysterious and grumpy Mr. Smith (Owen) sitting on a park bench sipping his coffee and eating his carrot when he's unwillingly thrust into a dangerous situation involving a hitman known as Hertz (Paul Giamatti) and the pregnant woman he's after.

The movie gets down to business right away without pausing so much as a second to introduce any characters or take a breather. The level of forward moving momentum the story has is unmatched, which is well established in just the opening seconds. After delivering the woman's baby amidst a hail of bullets Smith is left to care for the infant that Hertz so desperately wants to get his hands on for a reason that will soon become very clear. The loner Smith calls upon the only help he knows, a lactating hooker (Monica Belucci) who he hopes can look after the child. With the determined Hertz and his henchmen on their tale things don't exactly work out as planned and what unfolds are some of the craziest, hilarious and memorable shoot-outs you'll ever see.

I love it when a movie shows me things I've never seen before and the action scenes in this film had me jumping up and down on my couch screaming. This Smith guy sure knows how to handle a firearm as he's able to shoot anything and anyone from some absolutely insane angles. I've actually heard some criticize this movie because the action is "implausible." Again... that's the point. Smith pulls a brilliant trick out of his hat involving a car windshield that just left me with my mouth wide open. Just when you think this guy can't possibly get out of a situation he'll pull off something else you haven't seen before.

It's really sick how many endlessly creative and inventive ways he finds to shoot people and director Michael Davis films it as if it's poetry in motion. And I haven't even mentioned the baby. He does most of this while carrying "it," as he so lovingly refers to the little one. As if the scenes weren't hilarious enough already. And the movie is smart too. Smart enough to cut to reaction shots of the baby as all this is happening. Smart enough to have the characters make little life observations like Smith complaining about how rich people drive or Hertz lamenting about his marital problems. Hertz's interaction and ribbing of his henchmen is classic. As clever as Smith is, Hertz is always right there along with him being the rare villain in this kind of movie who makes smart decisions. The cat-and-mouse game between them feels epic and losing isn't an option. It's just not in their nature. The movie doesn't let up even in its final minutes, ending in a parade of gunfire.

Usually after an actor is nominated for or wins an Academy Award their career can go in one of two directions. It can go the way of someone like Cate Blanchett, who's used it as a springboard to even more prestigious, Oscar-worthy roles, or it can go the direction of Nicolas Cage, who's used it to earn bigger paydays with mainstream blockbusters. But then I remembered… Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti have never won Academy Awards. Both have been nominated in the supporting actor category (for Closer and Cinderella Man, respectively) but lost. But it does sure seem like, based on their resumes, both should have Oscars by now.

Their names on the movie poster mean you're almost always getting something of high-class quality. Watching both of them together in this is a rare treat and is the equivalent of Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman headlining Saw V. It's ironic then that while they're supposedly "lowering" themselves in mainstream fare, Owen and Giamatti deliver two of their most entertaining performances. For some reason Owen gets some flack for playing the same role (that of Clive Owen) over and over again, but why complain when he does it so well? There's a scene in the film where we finally find out details of Mr. Smith's past and when we hear them it isn't anything we didn't already know. That's because we could read those details ON OWEN'S FACE AND THEY WERE PRESENT IN THE PERFORMANCE from the very beginning.

Giamatti doesn't look at all like your typical hitman, but that just enhances the mesmerizing, scene-devouring power of the performance. But the real joy of it is how despite being a sick, sadistic bastard he still gives off the vibe that this character would be a cool guy to go out and have a beer with. I was always a fan of Giamatti but this performance only increases my appreciation of his skills ten-fold. Who knew he had this in him? It was so much fun watching him let go, having such a good of a time. Forget about Sideways, he deserves a nomination... FOR THIS! I wouldn't mind seeing him tackle similar roles in the future provided he doesn't start abusing the privilege like Cage has. Monica Belucci plays the least important role in the film, but she does a fine job. She has a massive, drooling fan base and even they're given a special treat in this film. The movie has it all: Sex, violence, and, in one memorable instance, both simultaneously in the same scene. And it isn't hiding behind fancy airs or pretending to be something it's not. This is just balls-to-the-wall non-stop excitement.

Having never heard of the film's director, I looked him up and discovered that Michael Davis did direct another movie I liked, 2000's little-seen romantic comedy 100 Girls. This is about as far from that film as you can get. You may as well call this 100,000 Bullets. But I do think it says something that he's a director capable of making two such radically disparate films. How many filmmakers can claim to have two good titles in complete opposite genres on their resume? This guy is definitely someone to watch. I'm aware that I may take some heat for praising this when I bashed 300 but that film actually had the nerve to pretend it was something of substance when it was just a robotic videogame of killings. This is inventive, purposeful filmmaking. I'm not mystified why such a risk-taking film would show up on a lot of lists of the years worst. It'll probably be showing up on a list of mine too, just not that one.

Anyone who hates it owes me no explanation. I get it. It isn't for everyone. But so many movies these days are afraid to go all the way. This one pushes the envelope and just when you think it can't push it any more it goes even further. My only regret about the film was that I had a free pass to see it in theaters, but didn't. I'm sure it would have been twice as enjoyable on the big screen. It joins Crank as one of the best adrenaline fueled action rushes of recent years. If you loved that movie, you'll love this. Even if I'm afraid to know what it says about me that I enjoyed it this much.

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