Shoot 'Em Up helped me realize something that should've been obvious a long time ago, but which just sunk in this morning: Not every movie is for me. For years I've been silly enough to believe that if studios are willing to spend tens of millions of dollars hiring reputable actors, scouting exotic locations, and bringing a screenwriter's vision to life, there must be a seed of universal enjoyment buried in even the most inane of blockbusters.
But, no, some movies are just made for the shiny-objects crowd--the people who don't mind being shown the same stunt three times in a single film, a stunt that was ripped off from another action movie that they surely would have seen only a few years earlier. Movies like Shoot 'Em Up don't try because they don't have to. They embody the critic-proof, turn-off-your-brain defense of the lowest pop cinema, and there's no arguing with their fans.
Michael Davis's film, about an ex-gun-store-owner/son-of-a-military-weapons-expert named Smith (Clive Owen) protecting a newborn baby from a nefarious arms dealer named Hertz (Paul Giamatti), is mostly non-stop action. Characters crack wise and blow each other away using giant guns that cause guts to make splashing sounds against whatever they land against. I know the cartoon parallel has been drawn before, but this really is Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd, with Smith literally chewing carrots while he kills and Giamatti's villain chewing everything else on set. Like a Friday the 13th sequel, Shoot 'Em Up exists to show the most faceless stooges get killed in the most creative ways in the least amount of time. Unlike a Friday the 13th sequel, this movie is really, really boring. This is due to Davis copying other movies of this ilk (like The Transporter and the far superior Crank) instead of finding anything new for his characters to do (Jason Voorhees had the good sense to vary his weapons; Smith pretty much sticks to his guns--and the occasional carrot).
I'd dismiss the film completely, save for the two really gross elements that set it apart from the harmless shoot 'em ups from which it draws its name: child endangerment and politics. Smith is a low-life who, we learn, was a family man until a gunman knocked over a restaurant and murdered his wife and son. This left him with a permanent hang-dog look and zero empathy--which is why his decision to help a pregnant woman escape an armed attacker is so curious. She turns out to be a pawn in a bone-marrow-harvesting scheme, of which Hertz is second brick from the top; Smith winds up delivering the baby in the middle of a shootout, during which the mother is shot in the head.
The rest of the picture sees Smith and child on the lam, with a lactating prostitute named Donna (Monica Bellucci) that he picks up in order to keep the kid alive while he figures out the mess they're in. During Shoot 'Em Up, the baby is shot at; abandoned on a merry-go-round; left in a bathtub, awake, while Smith and Donna have sex in the next room; left in a wooden crate in an alley while Donna blows a guy for money; and, in a sick bit of audience trickery on Davis's part, we're led to believe the baby is flung from a car during a high-speed chase (turns out it was a dummy with fully articulated features and an electronic voice box--no clue when Smith would've had time to throw that together). A lot of this neglect and violence is used to punctuate scenes' humor; maybe my recently becoming a parent has jaded my sense of fun, but I found all of this to be disgusting evidence of a screenwriter (also Davis) too lazy to build scenes on anything but shock value.
(I might have had less of a problem with this stuff if it had been Hertz doing all the dirty work, but it's Smith, our alleged protagonist, who shows the three-day-old how his gun works.)
And the political angle; Oh, my God! Much of Shoot 'Em Up meanders from "spectacular" action set-piece to the next, boring us to tears with cheesy one-liners and tired nonsense like a gun that can only be fired by the person who's fingerprints match the reader on its grip (can you guess how our hero gets around this problem? No? Go back to school). But at about the halfway point, Davis introduces his grand conspiracy involving a gun-maker, Hertz, and a senator who wants to abolish firearms. There's no need to expound on this because--Gasp!--they're all working together. But the anti-gun rhetoric bogs down the screenplay, which, like New Jack City, muddies its morals in the delivery system (This film doesn't make guns look cool at all. Nope, not in the least.).
It's clear that the wisecracks and grunting were making Davis feel insecure about his storytelling abilities, so he felt compelled to inject a quarter-baked plot about bone-marrow transplants and weapons dealers into the last act. The result is a lot of talking and no actual message, leaving a frustrated me to wonder whether I'm supposed to give a shit about these people or just let the explosive Chuck Jones wackiness just wash over me.
This movie is ugly, plodding, and unworthy of its stars. Owen looks like he just woke up in the middle of a Sin City 2 dress rehearsal, and Giamatti seems to be embarrassed of his Oscar nomination and illustrious career ("Hey, guys! I can act just as shittily as any central casting heavy! Look!). Bellucci, in particular, doesn't do herself any favors with frequent hysterical lapses into her native Italian; these are meant as comic relief, I guess, but I just felt really bad for her having to stoop to this Hanna-Montana-level shtick (on top of her attempts at delivering English dialogue, through most of which she sounds like a stroke victim).
If you think Shoot 'Em Up is a good movie, or even an entertaining one, I can name ten other films that do what it does better. Though, chances are, you've already seen and been unmoved by them.