In Michael Davis’ Shoot ‘Em Up, a dour gentleman named Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) sits on a bench eating a carrot (the first of an endless profusion) when a pregnant woman (Ramona Pringle, Skinwalkers) being chased by a man (Wiley M. Pickett, Transformers) flashes past. Mr. Smith tries to ignore this, but when he sees her pursuer take out a gun, he grumpily decides he has to take a hand. Very soon he has disposed of the would-be killer (I won’t tell you how), ends up in a full-scale gun battle with other assailants, delivers the baby (pausing to sever the umbilical cord by shooting through it), and attempts to get mother and son to safety. He fails as concerns the mother, and finds himself saddled with a hungry infant and a clearly psychotic hit man, Hertz (Paul Giamatti), and his seemingly endless supply of henchmen on their trail. All this happens in the first five—maybe seven—minutes of the film. Incredibly, this is merely a taste of the over-the-top bizarreness served up by Mr. Davis, which is to say it only gets more peculiar as its action unfolds.
If you look up Michael Davis, you’ll find a series of titles like Monster Man (2003), Girl Fever (2002) and 100 Girls (2000) festooning his credits—none of which seems to have secured a theatrical release. His tenacity at making movies has at last paid off with this one, and it’s enough to make you at least curious about the earlier efforts. Shoot ‘Em Up is a movie for the hardcore moviegoer. It’s deliberately preposterous; its humor is pitch black; it’s incredibly violent and very bloody; and it recognizes the existence of no societal taboo. It is in fact perhaps the most refreshingly creative explosion of pure bad taste to come our way in far too long.
In spirit, it’s cut from the same cloth as Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared (2006) and Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Crank (2006)—with the sheer preposterousness of Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector (2005) thrown in for good measure. Stylistically, it has the most in common with Running Scared, which is by way of saying it’s better made than Crank or The Protector. However, in the end, Shoot ‘Em Up is its own particular beast, thanks to the screwy inventiveness of Davis’ screenplay.
The plot itself isn’t a lot more than an excuse for 90 minutes of chase scenes and gun battles, but it takes a, well, let’s call it an unusual artistic sensibility to come up with the specifics of a movie like this. What kind of mind conceives the notion of giving the hero a part-time girlfriend who’s also a full-time hooker working in a very specialized brothel (the door is answered by a woman dressed in the top half of a nun’s habit and a thong)? In addition to this, said girlfriend—identified in the credits as Donna Quintano, but referred to as DQ (as in Dairy Queen?) in the film, and played by Monica Bellucci—happens to be lactating, allowing her to deal with clients who like to wear diapers and indulge in breast-feeding fantasies. This, of course, makes her just what the hero ordered as concerns the targeted infant.
By now you should have caught on to the fact that Shoot ‘Em Up is not your normal movie—and if you’re offended, well, that’s kind of the point. Davis wants to outrage and offend you, but in the nicest possible way while distracting you with increasingly unbelievable feats of gunplay—and carrot play, if it comes to that. What else is on display? Well, there’s a sex scene that carries on in the midst of a shootout and freefall/parachuting gun battle that defies description, topped off by a seriously warped landing. But perhaps the oddest thing about this movie is that all this firepower is at the service of a story that, thematically, is antigun.
Even stranger—thanks to the charismatic playing of Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci—it becomes impossible not to like the characters. I’d stop short of calling Paul Giamatti’s thoroughly nasty, sadistic villain likable, but it’s hard not to understand his frustration with Owen’s one-man army (“Do we suck this bad or is this guy really that good?”), and the plague of endless cell-phone calls—usually in the middle of gunfights—from his off-screen wife.
OK, the movie’s a little shy of perfect. Even given its short running time, Davis just can’t keep the action moving at the pace promised by the opening, but he comes pretty close. For a truly twisted dose of nasty humor, you’re not going to find anything to beat it. But do be warned—it is likely to give offense. Come on, it’s an R-rated action picture called Shoot ‘Em Up. What were you expecting, Jane Austen? Rated R for pervasive violence, gore, language, sexuality and nudity.