There have already been critical rumblings about the extreme violence in Shoot 'Em Up, but it's hard to get too worked up about a film whose very title announces its maker's intent and that opens by raking the New Line Cinema corporate logo with machine-gun fire (a gesture long overdue). Yes, the moment in the opening scene in which Clive Owen jams a carrot stick into a bad guy's eye — and out the back of his head — cheapens all involved, but you can't stay mad at a picture that soon has the hero helping a woman give birth with one hand and shooting encroaching thugs with the other. Moments later, as any fast-thinking gentleman would, he severs the baby's umbilical cord by shooting it in two, prompting the new mother to scream (quite sensibly), "What the hell are you doing?"
I mean, hey, that's funny.
OK. Maybe it's a guy thing.
Owen is the carrot-chomping Mr. Smith, a tough-looking guy in a long leather coat who's sitting on a bus bench on a seedy Manhattan side street, minding his own mysterious business, when a screaming pregnant woman (Ramona Pringle) runs past him, as does a profanity-spewing ne'er-do-well with a gun. Sighing, Smith gives chase, leading to a warehouse shootout involving an assortment of heavily armed creeps who are being led, lo and behold, by a snarling Paul Giamatti, a great actor who's clearly decided that, after having suffered artfully in Sideways and The Cinderella Man and still not winning an Academy Award, he deserves a silly but lucrative action-movie moment to call his own. Such a point could not be argued, and besides, what mortal man could resist the chance to repeatedly fire a semi-automatic at a human as heedlessly, arrogantly handsome as Owen?
But back to the guns. And the kid. That adorable tyke — a boy, of course, delivered during the warehouse shootout — falls into Smith's sole care (following Children of Men, this marks Owen's second consecutive onscreen baby rescue), and after tucking him under his arm like a football, he and the child, soon to gain a much-needed flak jacket, take to the streets, where Smith will attempt to fathom why an army of hit men has been dispatched to kill a newborn. And because Owen must have someone to kiss, a brainy, sultry Italian prostitute (Monica Bellucci) who just happens to be lactating, will come along for the ride.
Writer-director Michael Davis, who has made four previous films that no one really remembers, freely admits to lifting the idea for Shoot 'Em Up from the classic baby-in-peril hospital shootout in John Woo's Hong Kong thriller Hard-Boiled (1992). Davis' candor is admirable, but it made me think (as I often do when seeing American movies) of a line Bob Dylan once sang (and cowrote, oddly enough, with playwright Sam Shepard) that goes, "Ah, if there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now." Woo was surely thinking fresh thoughts when he sent Chow Yun Fat into Hard-Boiled's maternity ward, gun blazing, but these days, in Hollywood and international cinema alike, it is enough to cleverly mix and match film references, particularly in genre movies. Originality is no longer the path to success, hence Davis' enthusiastic nods — let's call them loving homage — to Raising Arizona, The Matrix, and a British series about a spy named Bond, James Bond.
Riffing on 007 movies is so old hat as to be a sign of lazy screenwriting, but here such jokes, which include a wonderfully ridiculous skydiving shootout and an end-title sequence in which sexily silhouetted women writhe atop gun barrels, take on new resonance with the presence of Owen. There's no way to watch this previously serious, Oscar-nominated Brit running, leaping, and firing a gun in a single, elegant bound and not wonder anew just how close this guy came to landing the big part, the one that went instead to Daniel Craig. Owen, who has the dark, hairy-chested good looks of Sean Connery, has denied being considered for Bond, but that's always been hard to believe. Shoot 'Em Up is guilty-pleasure junk that Giamatti surely took for the sheer manly man hell of it. And though he'd likely deny the theory, it's fun to imagine that Owen took the movie as a way of thumbing his nose — just a tiny bit and all in good sport — at Craig, his countryman and acting equal, who may have simply outpec'd Owen for the role of a lifetime.