Trust me. I know what people do and I know what people think, I always have.
— Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti)
Shoot ‘Em Up starts at full speed. A cartoon without the animation, the film introduces Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) at the moment he’s sucked into some mind-boggling action. Sitting on a city bench and chomping on a carrot — a tasty treat and prop he’ll use repeatedly during the film — he’s barely bothered when a screaming pregnant woman (Ramona Pringle) runs past him. Then he sees why she’s running: a standard-issue seamy assailant is chasing her (“You’re dead, bitch!”), pausing to cock his gun before he follows her into an alley. Smith knows what he has too do (“Fucking hell,” he sighs), and within a minute of that first carrot chomp, he’s deftly wielding his carrot, Cobain’s “Immodium” swirling all around them (“She said, she said, she said, she said…”).
There’s more, of course. This bad guy is followed by a whole squad of others, whose very noisy arrival barely distracts Smith from assisting the birth. Smith instructs the new mommy to keep her infant “quiet,” the mayhem proceeds apace, all crazy camera angles and slashing cuts and wild stunts with big guns. At last it’s over, and Smith is left holding the baby. With that, the plot begins. Again.
Outrageous and antic, Michael Davis’ movie simultaneously spoofs and pays homage to a number of originals, including Bugs Bunny, Indiana Jones, and James Bond. Super-skilled (trained by the U.S. military in his secret past) and intensely focused, Smith is motivated by a personal tragedy that left him determined to kill all bad guys, hating guns and movie clichés, and oh yes, strangely amnesiac when it comes to a baby’s basic needs. Putting a dirty sock on its head and carrying it in a shopping bag, surrounded by styrofoam peanuts, Smith follows what seems an instinct, and takes the baby to the only lactating woman he knows, a prostitute named Donna Quintano, or DQ (Monica Bellucci). Supposedly more worldly wise than her valiant ex-client, DQ has her own sad story, which she mentions by way of explaining her milk production. And while she sees that Smith has “issues” (“You are the angriest man in the world”), that doesn’t stop her from going along with the looney tunes, dutifully falling in love with Smith and little Oliver (this being the name they give the baby).
Though DQ might be fascinating (she is embodied by the dauntingly bodied Bellucci, after all), Shoot ‘Em Up isn’t much interested in her, except as she allows Smith to go forth and shoot sans Oliver. Smith is primarily concerned with his adversary, the ultra-malevolent Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who helpfully deems Smith “Mr. Hero,” and then, in case you miss the carrot references, a “wascally wabbit.” That’s not to say it’s not important that Smith is generally nice to DQ, for Hertz’s odiousness is marked by his meanness to his unseen wife, whose cell phone nagging (“Sweetie, this deal is almost done”) is less a running gag than a reminder of his essential puniness. “You know why a gun is better than a wife?” he riddles an associate. “You can put a silencer on a gun.” Yeah, funny.
For most of the film’s 87 minutes, the boys engage in what Hertz calls “tit for tat,” each violent encounter leading to the next, though it doesn’t actually look like Hertz gets much tat. (“My god,” he complains, “Do we really suck that bad or is that guy really that good?”) Smith is inexorably fast and furious during every shootout, even though, as he informs DQ, “I don’t carry a piece.” This has something to do with his history, but it also gives the film a subplot about gun control and a somewhat specious politics. In contrast to Smith’s supposedly spartan approach to firepower, Hertz has connections to a manufacturer, the cadaverous-looking Hammerson (Stephen McHattie), to keep his throng of shooters supplied.
But if they talk different games, Smith and Hertz are equally proud of their expertise as shooters and crack wise about their guns’ connotations, both sexual (“You’ve blown your load”) and psychological (“America is a land of opportunity,” where a “pussy can be a tough guy with a gun in his hand”). But for all the chatter, the film doesn’t build a case for or against gun control, only uses it as a clunky plot point. When a presidential candidate named Senator Rutledge (Daniel Pilon) appears to be selling his public stand on the issue to the highest bidder, the film pauses briefly for Smith to look disgusted, but then he’s off again, leaping from a plane with a squad of goons, all shooting at each other’s parachutes.
The incessant shooting-as-spectacle does raise a question about how movies show, inspire, or even argue against violence in the wider world. Granted, a movie titled Shoot ‘Em Up won’t be making a cast-iron case against guns as entertainment. But it doesn’t push much beyond obvious points, about gun shows (to indict black marketers), torture (to make Smith briefly vulnerable), the baby (to undermine the deleterious effects of listening to rock music), and DQ’s breasts (to titillate, again and again).
Smith, who expresses his feelings frequently, insists that he “hates” liars and hypocrites even more than he “hates” bad drivers and stupid movie conventions. So what does it mean that his movie appears so fond of those conventions? Deliriously energetic, Shoot ‘Em Up may be hypocritical or extremely clever, or both. But by the time it’s done with all the “phallic mumbo jumbo,” it doesn’t seem to be saying much that’s new.