Shooting Blanks 

Big ideas are undercut by poor execution in gonzo actioner Shoot 'Em Up.

The day before I saw Shoot 'Em Up, I attended an advance screening of Eastern Promises, the latest film (set to open in Memphis September 21st) from brilliant Canadian director David Cronenberg. Both films feature scenes in which a male protagonist (Clive Owen in Shoot 'Em Up, Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises) is attacked in a bathroom by a knife-wielding baddie.

If you want a demonstration of the gulf that separates concept from execution, especially in regard to action cinema, then see these two movies and juxtapose these similar scenes. The bathroom (bath house, actually) battle in Eastern Promises is bracing and uncomfortable. With minimal camera movement or editing, you feel the physicality of the action and the force of Mortensen's performance. In Shoot 'Em Up, the action is so dark, blurry, shaky, and chopped up, you may find yourself squinting and bobbing your head to try and get a better look. There are novel ideas in the scene — Owen uses the heat from the automated hand dryer to force his attacker to drop his weapon — but they get lost in the noise and clutter. And so it is with much of Shoot 'Em Up's breathless, overheated 86 minutes.

Shoot 'Em Up — which pits Owen as everyman action hero against Paul Giamatti's scenery-chomping criminal commando — goes gonzo less than five minutes in, as a pregnant woman flees a gun-brandishing predator by ducking into an empty warehouse. Innocent bystander Owen comes to the woman's rescue and ends up delivering her baby while fighting off a dozen or so attackers in a lavish gun battle as remixed Nirvana pounds away on the soundtrack.

The scenario is like something from a John Woo film (think Hard Boiled or The Killer), but where Woo instilled his ridiculously grandiose action set pieces with near-guileless conviction, writer/director Michael Davis makes self-consciousness his very mission. As a result, Shoot 'Em Up aims to come across as something like a compendium of Woo highlights as filtered through the artificial, ironic video game/graphic novel/cartoon sensibilities of movies such as The Matrix, Sin City, and Raising Arizona.

Davis is more a scenarist than screenwriter, as Shoot 'Em Up is packed with cool action-scene ideas. There's a baby on a merry-go-round targeted by a villainous shooter, the child's good-guy protector shooting at the handle to spin the contraption around and foul up the assassin's shot. There's a Rube Goldberg series of booby-trapped gun devices Owen's hero uses to slay a score of foils in a firearms factory.

One scene has Owen and Italian screen goddess Monica Bellucci having sex while bad guys burst in, forcing Owen to grab a gun and finish off his attacker while he's finishing off Bellucci. In concept, that's gold. In execution, it somehow manages to underwhelm.

Though some ideas are rewarded with commensurate follow-though — a head-on car collision Owen uses to catapult himself into better shooting position, a skydiving shoot-out that ends with a static wide shot of downed villains littering a field like mosquitoes on a windshield — most aren't. Too often in Shoot 'Em Up, editing and effects reign over real human movement or inspired camera movement or placement. Blurry, hectic visuals attempt to scam the viewer into the illusion of great action scenes that aren't quite there. The result is too often as tedious as watching a video game rather than playing one.

Shoot 'Em Up

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