Shoot ‘Em Up: revisiting a brilliantly daft action film

Looking for a film to pair in a double bill with Crank? Then Shoot 'Em Up, starring Clive Owen, is wonderfully bonkers...

Light spoilers for Shoot ‘Em Up lie ahead.

Shoot ‘Em Up is a very silly film. It’s at its best when it is being very silly, and not when it attempts to be serious or apply something as clichéd and boring as a plot to all the bits between shootings.

Made during a period in Clive Owen’s career when he was making quite a few awards-troubling, critically acclaimed movies, Shoot ‘Em Up stands out quite distinctly as a knowingly trashy and cheerfully ludicrous series of set pieces. The plot that connects all these stunts comes with a pithy Team America-light philosophy on gun use, and could be a parody of the typical plots and beats of action films. It doesn’t carry the same sense of silliness that the action scenes do, though, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Shoot ‘Em Up also features Paul Giamatti playing someone who is the exact mid-point of Frank Miller and Mr Twit. Paul Giamatti is as committed to enjoyable trash as much as he is weighty drama, and that’s why we love him. In this, he’s just horrible. He looks like he smells of sweat, cordite and Scampi Fries.

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Clive Owen would’ve made a good midpoint between the Daniel Craig Bond and the rest of the franchise. He can give good glower, is so deadpan as to be borderline comatose, and dispatches corny one-liners as if he’s bored of quipping but can’t help himself. As with his brief turn in Pink Panther 2, this feels like a reaction to the prominent rumours attaching him to the role, only in this case a much more violent one.

The action sequences aren’t tied down to any sense of realism be it gritty or smooth. All of Clive Owen’s bullets are made of titanium, Northerner’s gastric fluids, and the sweat of Jason Statham. All of the bad guys’ bullets are made of paper, childhood wishes and performance poetry. Clive Owen is the steady, methodical one in Halo multiplayer who racks up all the headshots, and the bad guys are noobs with erratic machine guns and no knowledge of strafing. This is not a bad thing; the bullet deadliness quotient is obviously fixed as with many films. 

Shoot ‘Em Up isn’t pretending to be anything other than the most gun engorged film it can be, and the plot contrives to place a baby in the middle of them. It also has Monica Belluci in a thankless damsel role where she gets to play all the myriad facets of Hollywood womanhood: prostitute, mother and victim. Like a fair few things in Shoot ‘Em Up, it’s hard to tell if this is a parody or not.

The film is at its best when it’s having fun with over the top violence, taking your average gunplay and bespoking it up to eleven. You want to see Clive Owen shooting people? Fine, you have plenty of options. You want to see Clive Owen shooting people while holding a baby/having sex/operating a complex system of wheels and pulleys? And kill a guy with a carrot? You pretty much have to see this film. The violence is exactly as cartoonish and satisfying as you’d expect.

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The plot – which involves tracking down the baby’s parents and working out why someone would hire Paul Giamatti to kill it – is twisty, twisted and kinda hokey, but it isn’t presented in as flippant a way as the action sequences. It’s an odd contrast: to have action so determinedly over the top, and then to deliver the plot completely straight. Personally I’d find it more entertaining to extend this sense of gung-ho abandon to the entire film.

As it stands, the gunfights take clichés and run riot with them, but the characters and plot take clichés and just use them as they are. Possibly this is intended as a commentary or meta-joke, but it doesn’t feel like it. Certainly the cast are game for anything in terms of stunts, but only Giamatti gets to really go to town on the dialogue. It’s all too straight-laced otherwise, earnestly delivered when some Naked Gun style straight-laced ridiculousness wouldn’t go amiss. As I said, it could be a parody, but it feels like the film makers actually want us to care about the characters and include a serious message. Possibly a Hot Shots style ‘War: it’s fantastic’ style – or something approaching John McTiernan making his stars fire huge guns at absolutely nothing in Predator – could have made the same points in a more entertaining way.

What it does underline is that Shoot ‘Em Up is not a satire, it isn’t mocking action films rather than embracing them, taking them as a foundation from which to go further and sillier. The serious point the film makes is that guns make weak men strong results in a kind of watered down Team America pussies/assholes/dicks speech, culminating in the line ‘Do you know what I hate? A pussy with a gun’.

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It’s not as memorable or pithy a sentiment, even if you can see what they mean.

It’s a decent script in terms of zingers, but it’s not up there with the best. This is a film more about gun stunts and set pieces, and those deliver heavily on the first watch. Writer/Director Michael Davis appears to have shot his load in terms of big pictures, having only released the short film Riding Shotgun since.

In terms of box office Shoot ‘Em Up didn’t do well, failing to make its reported production budget back, but it’s one of those films that finds its audience on DVD, although not to the extent that a straight-to-DVD sequel has occurred. Possibly Davis was only able to get the budget together for such a film once, a never to be repeated high-concept temptation that didn’t set the box office alight enough to go any further.

What he has left us with is a riot of genius stupidity, a brazenly fun and gung-ho romp let down by, if anything, its lack of commitment to big dumb silliness. Do seek it out.