The Madness and Absurdity of Shoot ‘Em Up Work In Its Favor

If there was an award for ‘opening scene that best establishes the tone of the rest of the film’, Shoot ‘Em Up would win by such a wide margin the award would be discontinued the same day out of fear that nothing could rival its legacy. The film wastes no time introducing its protagonist, a no-nonsense, carrot-eating drifter named Smith (Clive Owen) who can’t even sit on a bench without becoming embroiled in an assassination plot against a pregnant woman. Smith kills her would-be hitman by stabbing him in the face with a carrot, utters the line “eat your vegetables”, and then proceeds to gun down a fresh batch of thugs while simultaneously helping the woman give birth. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and the contrast between the outlandishness of Smith’s actions and how seriously he treats them leaves no doubt about what kind of experience the viewer is in for. Shoot ‘Em Up is an action film that has never heard of the word realism, with director Michael Davis leaping from one illogical set piece to the next like someone who’s just discovered the magic of cinema. It’s ludicrous, dumb, borderline nonsensical… and an absolute joy to behold.


But such an opinion was not felt by many when it first released. The film received a polarizing reception from critics and failed to recoup its budget at the box office, an outcome that appears to have landed Davis in director jail. Thankfully the film has grown in stature since, most notably working its way onto Rotten Tomatoes’ “140 Essential Actions Movies To Watch” list. Its success at indulging itself in wacky hijinks without becoming too lost in its own style has made it the benchmark for over-the-top action films, with Davis and his fabulous team of actors treating the film with just the right balance of seriousness and tongue in-cheek comedy. For those looking to turn off their brain and enjoy the spectacle that is blockbuster action it’s hard to recommend anything better, and more films should be willing to embrace its unique brand of outrageous fun.

if Shoot ‘Em Ups opening few minutes establishes the absurd nature of its tone perfectly, it also showcases the equally absurd concept that is its plot. After the pregnant woman dies shortly after giving birth, Smith is thrust into the dual roles of amateur father and master badass as he protects the baby (later named Oliver) from the evil Karl Hertz (Paul Giamatti). From this point on the film takes a nosedive into the world of the needlessly convoluted, with Oliver becoming the heart of an elaborate scheme to stop a potential presidential candidate from reaching the White House after Hertz decides his proposals for gun control will have dire consequences for his criminal enterprises. Mixed up in this is Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci), the archetypal gold-hearted prostitute who is determined to protect Oliver from those trying to harm him. It’s silly stuff, and all told with just the right amount of eye-rolling self-effacement to make the journey down the rabbit hole an enjoyable one. But despite the surprising amount of work put into it, Davis knows no one is coming into his film expecting a complex and thought-provoking narrative, so instead uses it as a backdrop from which to hang some of the most exciting shootouts you’ll ever see.

Shoot ‘Em Up is a film all about guns, with everything from its plot to its core philosophy to even its poster making that abundantly clear. As such, you’d expect it to have gunfights that could rival those that Sam Peckinpah could produce, and Davis is more than happy to deliver. One second Smith is slaughtering a barrage of henchmen with a Rube Goldberg machine consisting of every type of gun imaginable. Moments later he’s skydiving from a plane while still engaging in a shootout with those stupid enough to chase after him. From the moment the film starts, guns are firing with such regularity you could set your watch to them, with Smith still finding ways to pull the trigger even when his hands are incapacitated.

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the John Woo influence can clearly be felt, and not just because of cinematographer Peter Paul, who previously collaborated with Woo on The Killer. The trench-wearing hero of Shoot ‘Em Up conjures images of the mobster heroes from Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, as does his stringent belief in following a strict code of ethics. Davis also employs Woo’s trademark use of slow-motion to allow his viewers to really indulge in the mayhem he and his team have created, while also highlighting the elegant and almost balletic movements of Smith as he spins and slides his way through the chaos. The whole film owes much to the heroic bloodshed genre of Hong Kong action cinema that was popularized by directors like Woo and Ringo Lam, and by pushing this iconic style through the filter of a hyper-stylized version of America, Davis is able to craft an effective tribute to his influences without just blatantly copying them. It’s a more successful translation than even Woo managed with some of his Hollywood pitstops as such Mission: Impossible 2and while Davis will never receive the same level of international praise for creating a whole new language of action filmmaking, his ability to refine an existing format for an entirely new audience is worthy of commendation.

One of the greatest strengths of Shoot ‘Em Up is its pacing. In contrast to most action films that push their runtime as far as it will go, Shoot ‘Em Up clocks in at a respectable 86 minutes. The result is a film that’s fast, racing through its plot with the speed of a bullet. The film never lingers in one location for long, with Davis reducing any ‘traditional’ scene to its bare minimum so he can get back to what we’re all here for. The constantly moving camera and frantic editing gives the film a kinetic energy that’s impossible not to get sucked into, but Davis is careful not to overdo either element to ensure what’s happening is always decipherable. The result is an experience paced to within an inch of its life, and one that makes for ideal viewing for those looking for a quick burst of adrenaline.

Adding to this is its excellent soundtrack, a barrage of guitar-heavy tracks that occasionally borrows tunes from classic bands like AC/DC and motor head. It’s admittedly cheesy, but it makes for a refreshing change from the electronic/orchestra scores that usually accompany such films. The second that first riff starts up as a band of hitmen rush into the warehouse to avenge their friend who’s just been killed by a vegetable, the goofiness of the whole situation is sure to bring a smile to anyone’s face. It’s a choice that fits the slapstick world of Shoot ‘Em Up perfectly, and when coupled with the gunshots that might as well form the rhythm section of the score, they make an excellent soundscape to accompany Smith as he enacts his one-man crusade against the world (Smith also seems like the kind of person who would refuse to listen to anything but dad rock).

However, a film is only as good as the characters that populate it, and the cartoonish imitations of people that Davis has filled his script with provide the delicious cherry atop the gold-encrusted cake. The ease with which Smith defeats his opponents would make him a boring character in most stories, but in a film where every component is feeding back into the endless barrage of action, he makes for the ideal protagonist from which to center this chaos. He’s a modern-day retelling of the classic Man with No Name archetype, and his transformation from reluctant to loving surrogate father stops him from becoming too one-note. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti is having the time of his life as Hertz, relishing the opportunity to escape the “nice guy” roles he had become known for. He says every line with the sinister tones of someone who can’t pop down to the shop unless they do so in an evil way, and it makes for one of the most entertaining villains in recent years. The rest of the supporting cast all fit neatly into their roles (the love interest, the ruthless henchmen, the corrupt politician, etc.), acting as clichéd but functional gears in the machinery. The most surprising thing is how seriously all the actors take it, avoiding any winks at the camera (or things to that effect) despite how stupid the film gets. Instead, they treat it with just the right amount of sincerity, and its juxtaposition against the silliness of everything else is where the real joy of Shoot ‘Em Up comes from.

Action movies come in all shapes and sizes. for every Tenet or Extraction that tries to operate within the realm of reality, there will be things like Free Guy or The Suicide Squad that are happier to take the breaks from reality. Both have their problems. The former can get so entrenched in gritty realism that it can feel like its creators have forgotten the visceral joy that gave birth to the action genre, while the latter can just become self-indulgent goofiness where everyone is trying too hard to be in on the joke. Shoot ‘Em Up strikes a perfect balance between the two, serving as one grand celebration of the action genre while still keeping one foot (albeit one on its tiptoes) in the real world. This contrast is what makes the film so much fun, with the seriousness of its plot making the action seem even more ridiculous by comparison. The result is the most unashamedly entertaining action film of the century, and more directors should be willing to embrace its love for all things chaos.

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