I know I’m typing myself as hopelessly unhip by not rolling with the amoral “fun” of Shoot ‘Em Up (New Line), a grubby little action spoof with a thrown-together script, a mystifyingly top-notch cast, and a body count to rival the war in Afghanistan. After all, it’s not meant to be taken seriously! It’s a parody of sadism-as-entertainment, not an example of it! I get it that as soon as graphic novels or video games are invoked as references in a movie, we’re all supposed to chuckle indulgently at the content. But I refuse to relinquish my right to be repelled by this nasty piece of work.
Not least among Shoot ‘Em Up’s aesthetic crimes is its barefaced (not to mention tediously redundant) larceny from a truly great work of popular art: Warner Bros. cartoons. Our nihilistic hero, Mr. Smith (Clive Owen), is munching on a carrot, Bugs Bunny-style, when a pregnant woman rushes by, pursued by an armed man. During the ensuing gun battle, Mr. Smith manages to kill a man using only a carrot, deliver the baby, sever the umbilical cord with a bullet, and carry the woman and child to safety. But the mother is killed by a member of the assassin’s gang, leaving Smith responsible for the newborn. That’s where your lactating hooker comes in.
Donna Quintana, a bizarre concoction of a character played (or should I say, phonetically sounded out) by Monica Bellucci, spends her days in a specialty brothel suckling middle-aged pervs (how her milk came in at all will be explained later, in some maudlin downtime between gunfights). She’s conscripted as a wet nurse for the infant, whom they name Oliver, after Oliver Twist. But, like that orphan, the poor lad’s troubles are far from over. As it turns out, a crazed gangster/businessman named Hertz (Paul Giamatti) is bent on killing the baby in order to protect the secret of a dying U.S. senator who’s breeding babies for a last-ditch marrow transplant. These goings-on are intimately, yet incoherently, connected with the gun lobby, thus allowing Mr. Smith the unique opportunity to advocate for gun control between pauses to reload.
Believe it or not, that plot sounded better on paper than it reads on the screen. If all of this nonsense was played as a genre pastiche—like the Airplane! movies, say, or last year’s delightful Hot Fuzz—Shoot ‘Em Up might have been lighthearted in tone. Instead, Michael Davis, who seems to have scribbled the dialogue with one hand while operating a gaming joystick with the other, hides behind some vague notion of camp as a pretext to imagine awful things happening to people’s bodies. Innumerable (and indistinguishable) baddies are eviscerated, tortured, thrown out of planes, and impaled on root vegetables—but hey, it’s all in the name of protecting a baby. The way the infant’s helplessness is milked indiscriminately for tears, laughs, or thrills, according to the plot’s demands, is another of the movie’s moral low points.
Clive Owen is making a career of delivering newborns and smuggling them to safety against impossible odds—he performed the same office in last year’s sublime Children of Men, a work so profoundly divergent from Shoot ‘Em Up that it seems misleading to call them both “movies.” Owen, Giamatti, and Bellucci—all fine actors at the peak of hireability—must have been coming off a collective coke bender when they agreed to be in this murky, straight-to-video-looking piece of crud (which gets extra points off for doing the lamest job ever of trying to pass off Toronto as New York. Why not just set the movie in Canada and be done with it?).
Davis has cited John Woo’s cult classic Hardboiled (in which Chow Yun-Fat rescues a baby in the midst of a gunfight) as an influence, proving once again that watching cool movies is a less-than-sufficient apprenticeship for making cool movies. He would have done well to recruit script doctors from the participants in Slate’s recent action-movie one-liner contest, who might have stepped in to prevent some of the worst pre- and post-gunshot wisecracks in recent memory: “He who leads from the rear takes it in the rear”; “Guns don’t kill people … but they sure help”; and, perhaps most painfully for the Chuck Jones fans among us, “What’s up, doc?”