For as long as I've been a cinephile there's been one action movie that has always held a special spot in my art: Robert Rodriguez's 1995 film "Desperado."
The film established Rodriguez's reputation as an exciting genre filmmaker and made stars of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. The film features a nameless mariachi with a guitar case filled with guns on a mission to take down a Mexican drug kingpin. Throughout the film he blows away dozens of thugs as he makes his way to the final showdown with the villain.
There's one signature scene in particular that has always stood the test of time. The mariachi visits a bar that runs much of the drug operations. The crooks quickly discover who they're facing and draw their guns. Then, in a perfectly choreographed and filmed sequence, the mariachi ducks, dives, slides, and lunges through the bar, effectively, elegantly wasting every machine-gun wielding criminal. It's bullet ballet at its best.
With "Shoot 'Em Up" that's the entire movie: one inventive gun dance after another with Clive Owen taking on hordes of enemies and killing them in endlessly entertaining ways.
Two weeks ago I wrote a disappointed review of the Jet Li/Jason Statham action movie "War," lamenting its forgettable, poorly-shot gun battles and hoping that perhaps "Shoot 'Em Up" would be the action-porn film of the year. "Shoot 'Em Up" answers those prayers, mostly.
The bullets start flying within a minute of the film's start and we're quickly shown just how joyously ridiculous and over the top the movie's going to be. Owen sits at a bus stop in the middle of the night in a rundown part of town. He's eating a carrot and looking calmly confident and badass. Right from the beginning he's the archetypal cool guy he's played before in "Children of Men," "Inside Man," "Sin City" and the BMW series of short films "The Hire." A pregnant woman desperately runs down the street. Her pursuer crashes his car, gets out, and runs after. She ducks into an abandoned warehouse. He stops outside, pulls out his gun and follows. Owen, known only as Mr. Smith, thinks for a moment before pursuing to save the woman.
This is an action movie that's going to do things that have never been done before. How many action movies' first kill is done by shoving a carrot through a guy's skull? How many action movies have the hero deliver a child in the middle of a shootout and then sever the umbilical cord with a shot from a pistol?
As is the case with most action-porn movies the plot is pretty low priority and often convoluted or nonsensical. Basically all you need to know is that Smith has to protect the baby from Mr Hertz, an ex-FBI profiler-type played by Paul Giamatti who can call upon an endless army of armed thugs. The story's minimal plot is wrapped up in corrupt politicians and gun-manufactures and is best left ignored. Since he's got a newborn baby to protect Smith needs a lactating woman so he recruits the prostitute Donna Quintano, played by the always delightful Monica Bellucci. Over the course of the film the two will alternately run from and confront the endless stream of dime-a-dozen bad guys.
"Shoot 'Em Up" further establishes its own particular style with its first musical choice: Nirvana's "Breed," the fourth cut off "Nevermind." This, my friends, is a grunge action movie. When most action films have an expensive, polished look to them, "Shoot 'Em Up" has dirt under its fingernails. Owen and Giamatti are both tired, poorly dressed and unshaven. The action seems to almost always take place in run down places. The second fight scene takes place in a disgusting men's room. And an aura of sleaze pervades the entire picture.
Looking at the film as a whole it's a very successful picture - continually entertaining, original, and lively with fun characters. Owen and Giamatti are both favorites and they really shine here, playing off one another well. It's certainly got re-watching potential too. (Seen it twice already; definitely picking up the DVD, hopefully in an unrated edition.) Looking at the film more deeply, though, there are a two elements that taint the whole proceeding, earning the film its two minuses.
One minus just did not seem enough but a B+ seemed inaccurate. A B+ is a good film with several great elements. An A- is a great film with a few minor flaws. Well, "Shoot 'Em Up" is a great film with a few major flaws, hence two minuses. My ratings system is slave to me, not I to it.
The first problem is a certain immaturity that encompasses much of the picture. Especially watching it the second time it dawned on me that the screenplay was the kind of thing that I would have written as a freshman in high school after watching "Desperado" too many times. The way that Smith will reap vengeance upon those who are rude or impolite does not always work. There are also a few too many awkward, ham-handed intrusions of the director's liberal politics that just seemed embarrassing in their poor execution.
More importantly, though, and I don't want to come off as too politically-correct obsessed - since I'm not - but there's a subtle misogyny slinking around in the background. The female lead as a skimpily-dressed prostitute who works her trade to buy the baby a bulletproof vest? "Why is a gun better than a wife?" Giamatti asks his goons. "You can put a silencer on a gun." Then there's the scene in which he tortures the prostitute Monica Bellucci with the hot tip of his just-fired pistol. And the scene in which dozens of women are found slaughtered... And the scene where Smith exacts revenge on a mother spanking her son in public... Et cetera, et cetera... It's really not as bad as it sounds, though. Just minor annoyances.
On this last point the attentive reader's counter should be "Oh come on! You gave 'Hostel: Part II' a free pass. What's the deal?" Well, with "Hostel: Part II" one of the major violent sequences is female-on-female violence with historical precedent. Also the ending twist is anything but misogynistic. And besides, the original was practically an indictment of misogyny.
Back to "Shoot 'em Up," though, these two criticisms are pretty incidental - hardly deal-breakers and likely only to seriously impair viewers who have no business seeing the film in the first place. Rarely has a film been more clear about what it is and who its prospective audience is. If you think you will like "Shoot 'Em Up," if action pictures like "Desperado," "Kill Bill," "True Lies," "The Matrix," "Face/Off," and "Hard Boiled" are on your DVD shelf then "Shoot 'Em Up" will deliver and a few months from now join them in the pantheon of action film masterpieces.