Sunday, June 15, 2008

Shoot ‘Em Up and the drawbacks of macho posturing

Back in the1960s, when the film critic Pauline Kael saw the words “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” on an Italian movie poster, she realized that much of the appeal of movies boiled down to these terms. Nowadays, movies like Crank, Running Scared, Sin City, and now Shoot ‘Em Up do not aspire to be anything more than a lurid series of accelerated transgressive acts for the easily bored guy raised on shooter video games, and I find the trend disheartening. These films keep ramping up the violence until very little remains of human motivation, story coherence, and much of anything else. They exist to cater to the testosterone-fuelled frustration of the viewer who revels in displays of boorish masculinity until he returns to the relative impotence and inconsequence of his regular life.

At the beginning of Shoot ‘Em Up, Clive Owen as Mr. Smith sits on a nameless city bench at night, staring into space, but then a pregnant woman passes by chased by a gun-wielding thug. Mr. Smith comes to her rescue by plunging a carrot into the thug’s eye, and then helps her give birth as other goons arrive to attack her and the newly born baby. Smith kills them off one by one, as he will do repeatedly for the next hour and 20 minutes, managing to save the baby but not the mother from a bullet wound to the head. He then takes the baby through the grim streets of Toronto and finds one means or another to keep it alive as a snarling and hairy hit man named Hertz (Paul Giametti) tries various ways to murder it. Smith also enlists the help of a prostitute, Donna Quintano (Monica Belluci), who specializes in breast feeding, but the cat and mouse game between Smith and Hertz basically comprises the plot of the film. Eventually we learn of a political subtext that involves a corrupt presidential candidate who funds a maternity factory to produce bone marrow transplants, but that scarcely matters. What matters here is that Shoot ‘Em Up has ATTITUDE, and people can cheer as Mr. Smith makes cracks like “I’m a British nanny and I’m dangerous” as he slides under tables with his machine guns and “body bags” several more anonymous bad guys with poor complexions, leather jackets, and mediocre marksmanship skills. Directed and written by the relative newcomer Michael Davis, Shoot ‘Em Up rarely allows the viewer to take in a whole scene. Instead, he over-guides the eye with close-ups, firing with all cylinders behind the camera as well.

In its tongue-in-cheek postmodern ironic way, Shoot ‘Em Up likes to make references to other superior films and cartoons. For instance, Clive Owen eats carrots frequently, so I guess we are meant to associate him with Bugs Bunny, with Giametti as the equivalent to Elmer Fudd, but Bugs never needed to kill anyone, let alone slaughter whole squadrons of goons, sent like lemmings to their death, to get his message across. Giametti began his film career with nuanced portraits of socially challenged men in American Splendor and Sideways. Now he leers, snarls, feels up the breast of a dead mother, and makes comments like “Guns don’t kill people, but they sure help.” I couldn’t help reflecting on his sad appearance as Santa in Fred Claus and the seemingly inevitable coarsening of many actors’ careers once they reach mainstream success. As for Clive Owen, I have liked most of his movies, especially Children of Men, where he also fights off attackers as he protects a mother and child. But whereas Children of Men couched its violence within a frighteningly plausible picture of a terrorist-ridden England 25 years from now, Shoot ‘Em Up frames its action within the context of nothing.

I confess that I did like the scene where Clive Owen evades gunfire while in free fall after jumping out of a jet, but otherwise Shoot ‘Em Up suffers from sheer overkill and the general tedium of relentlessly trying to be outrageous. I can imagine the baby angrily calling his agent after the shoot, asking why he couldn’t find him something more mature to star in.

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