It's unlikely that you'll see a more accurately named movie this year than "Shoot 'Em Up." From the moment a blitzkrieg of bullets riddle the New Line Cinema logo to the stylishly shell-shocked final credits, writer-director Michael Davis' hodgepodge homage to Hong Kong movie action is one gunfight after another leaving an inestimable body count in its wake.
The vast majority of the kills are tallied by a poker-faced sharpshooter named Smith played with endearing grumpiness by Clive Owen. The film opens with Smith sitting on a bus bench munching a carrot, the significance of which soon becomes clear. The crunchy, orange vegetable not only indicates that the movie has no greater pretensions than a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but in the hands of Smith, is one lethal root.
Smith witnesses a pregnant woman being chased into a warehouse by a man who clearly intends to kill her. Seeing no alternative, Smith joins the pursuit armed only with his carrot and what ensues is a bravura sequence in which he battles numerous bad guys and delivers and saves the baby amid a hail of gunfire -- though the baby's mother isn't so lucky.
To see Smith running with the baby tucked under his arm like a football is to imagine the Clive Owen of "Sin City" charged with protecting the infant of "Children of Men." But rather than the future of humanity being at stake, it's the fate of that one baby that drives Smith.
He's chased here by Paul Giamatti, as the sadistic mercenary Mr. Hertz backed by a disposable (and seemingly unlimited) army of guns for hire.
Italian actress Monica Bellucci turns up as a lactating prostitute whom Smith needs for obvious reasons and the pair along with the baby form an unorthodox surrogate family. There's not a lot of heat between Bellucci and Owen save one sex scene but even that turns into a gunfight played to mostly comic effect.
Davis combines the physicality of the "Transporter" movies with the ballistics of "Smokin' Aces" -- all of which owe a large debt to John Woo and other Asian action auteurs. Shot by Oscar-winner Peter Pau ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and edited by Peter Amundson, the movie has a kinetic energy that would be envied by some bigger-budgeted Hollywood fare.
Over-the-top doesn't begin to describe "Shoot 'Em Up's" set-pieces, most of which are undeniably entertaining. The director's knack for staging them, however, far outstrips his writing chops. The movie wastes a good chunk of its second half explicating the baby's rather lame back story.
A sardonic attempt to inject some gun-control discourse never really goes anywhere and there's an impulse to fill in the blank slates of Smith and Hertz that should have been ignored. The farther afield the movie gets from its reason to be -- the shoot-em-up -- the less interesting it becomes.
There are some pithy one-liners and self-referential jokes such as Owen's character's preference for stealing BMWs (the actor previously appeared in several shorts for the automaker) or Giamatti's taunting Smith by daring him to perform a sexual act on him "sideways," but the adrenaline kicks all involve guns and bullets.
Owen and Giamatti would appear to be having a good time in a "Look, Ma! This ain't Shakespeare" kind of a way.
Owen with his detached stoicism makes an excellent nihilist, one who professes to care about nothing but has a list of pet peeves a mile long. Balancing Owen's minimalist approach, Giamatti revels in being a tough guy and chews the scenery with the gusto of a "Batman" villain (1960s TV series version).
The presence of the two actors and the film's mordant sense of humor buoy the downtime between bloodbaths and genre fans may find enough to love here.
For others, the unabashed comic book crudeness will likely wear thin fast.
"Shoot 'Em Up." MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong bloody violence, sexuality and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In general release.