Clive Owen would have made a great James Bond, which is why Shoot ‘Em Up seemed to have so much potential — Clive Owen could shoot people and generally be a badass without having the burden of a franchise to carry on his shoulders.
But while Shoot ‘Em Up does share a penchant for guns and unfortunate puns (and more guns), the similarities end there. The film takes the central conceit of the James Bond franchise — a man armed with a gun and free reign to shoot whoever he likes — and pushes it farther into farce than the Broccoli family ever dared. However, even the most violent James Bond films don’t have the morbid fascination with gunplay that this film exhibits. There is an antic and disturbing revelry as the camera captures every flash of blood and splayed corpse. Owen’s Mr. Smith is less a fleshed-out character than an Id unchained. Though not one for extended monologues he is fond of the phrase “Do you know what I hate?” which recurs throughout the film, often as a preface to some act of violence. The details of his dislikes are long and tiresome and I’ve forgotten the particulars amid all the gunfire. However, I do remember it included careless drivers, one of whom is driven off of the road in response to his lazy attention to signaling. (Mr. Smith, it becomes clear, is not a nice guy.)
Despite the frenetic pacing, Shoot ‘Em Up is more political statement than movie. It seems to present outrageous violence in order to make a half-hearted appeal for greater gun control. Though I agree with the sentiment, it seems hypocritical to make a movie that revels in outrageous violence while castigating loose gun control laws. Shoot ‘Em Up tries to take both sides and making a convincing case for neither.
More problematic than the film’s fetishization of violence is its convoluted plot. It begins with Mr. Smith defending a pregnant woman — and then her baby — from packs of leather-clad gunman (apparently there’s a strict dress code for hired assassins).
Thankfully, Shoot ‘Em Up doesn’t dilly-dally with anything so frivolous as exposition, but jumps right into the important matter of shooting people. Unfortunately it undercuts that brave decision by filling the rest of the movie with boring and confusing exposition. While the unending hail of bullets didn’t do it for me, I’m sure the people it is aimed for won’t appreciate some bullshit political machinations interrupting their bloodbath: It’s eventuall explained (right after Mr. Smith takes out about 800 men) that all of these dudes are after the baby for it’s bone marrow, which is needed to save the life of an ailing U.S. Senator who is running for President on a gun-control platform (while also secretly in bed with the gun lobby). If reading that was confusing try writing — or better yet, watching — it. Let’s try that plot-synopsis one more time: Lots of people try to shoot each other. Almost everyone gets shot and dies, but a few people live. Better?
Before going any further, I should make one thing clear: I have no problem with mindlessness, in its place.
I don’t care that Shoot ‘Em Up present itself as nothing more than an exercise in interesting new ways for Clive Owen to kill people (sliding down a conveyer belt, parachuting from an airplane) and different means to do so (carrots come gruesomely into play a couple times). Watching the director, Michael Davis devise unexpected ways for people to die was mildly diverting and disturbing. The problem I had with this film was that no matter how creative these deaths were I never felt the sense of adrenaline-induced euphoria that watching a film like The Matrix for the first time produced. It wasn’t the film’s violence I objected to, it was the fact that it was boring violence, for no purpose. Protecting a baby should have some emotional resonance, but the child in this film might as well have had MacGuffin stamped on it’s forehead (look it up).
Finally, I think that the key deficiency this movie suffers from is that no one told the director that he was making a ridiculous movie. Davis never lets up on the audience, exposing us to an undending tide of choreographed chaos, none of it particularly impressive or memorable. Instead of a tongue-in-cheek film, it devolves to a series of stupid gun tricks that, without an emotional pull, become monotonous. As an action film Shoot ‘Em Up is boring; as a cultural critique it’s bludgeoning and obnoxious.