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“Eat your vegetables,” he says before punching a carrot through the back of a nameless goon’s head. That’s basically what Shoot Em Up is. An eighty-four-minute masterclass in how to kill people with bullets and vegetables. In 2007 the world wasn’t ready for a film like Shoot Em Up. It came along at a time when action movies were still considered the chains keeping ‘good’ films stuck in a bygone era. But Shoot ‘Em Up aimed for the stars and with hindsight it’s easy to see that it landed there comfortably.
A drifter named Smith (Clive Owen) rescues a pregnant woman from a nameless goon by means of the aforementioned carrot. A gunfight ensues and the pregnant woman gives birth before being gunned down by unlikely hitman Hertz (Paul Giamatti). Smith flees with the new-born baby and before long a messed up pseudo-family is formed by Smith, baby Oliver and lactating prostitute Donna “D.Q.” Quintano (Monica Belluci). Bullets (and carrots) are fired with abandon and nameless goons drop like flies.
Clive Owen was fresh off of giving a career best performance in one of the greatest films ever made. Children of Men should have put Owen on the fast track to even greater success. Instead Owen made the brave decision to star in Shoot ‘Em Up, a film the world was by no means ready for. Both films are dystopian in nature although the latter is by far the grimier of the two. Thematically Shoot ‘Em Up is a vicious indictment of American society and politics though it tends to fall on its own sword quite often.
Shoot ‘Em Up is as thrilling as they come. The likes of Transporter and other films of this era have nothing on director Michael Davis’ vision. Politically however the film fails to find solid ground to stand on. How do you try to pass on a message of gun control and anti-violence when your protagonist is grimly slaughtering his way through an army of rugged henchmen dressed in suits, overalls, and leather jackets? It’s a tad confusing and Shoot ‘Em Up would have been better off without the message. A man committing mass murder is only justified when he’s trying to save a baby and a hooker with a heart of gold. Now let’s talk about goons.
Yes, goons. Goons are an under appreciated yet key part of any action film. From the cybernetic mutant hunters of Logan to the stylish bullet sponges in John Wick, goons, thugs, and henchmen form the backbone of every action movie. Shoot ‘Em Up appreciates its nameless gun-toting hoods. They all look the same but every one of them gets his moment in the sun. Only in this case the sun is the flash from a gun’s muzzle. Whether it’s the suit that’s thrown into a helicopter’s rotor blades or the grunt whose eye is gouged out with a carrot or the numerous other assailants that are each shot multiple times, everyone gets their moment to mug to the camera. In this case mugging to the camera usually involves a contorted death mask but hey as the saying goes stuntmen can’t be choosers. OK maybe I’m paraphrasing but you get the picture.
The film’s adrenaline pumping chase and gunfight scenes are punctuated by moments of great tenderness. Smith might be playing a modernised Man with No Name but he’s still one of the good guys. Of course, this is an action film so these tender moments involve Smith teaching baby Oliver about a pistol’s key components or Smith refusing to shoot a dog because, well, it’s a dog. Would you shoot a dog? Didn’t think so. Even Paul Giamatti’s perverted and greasy Hertz is weirdly sympathetic. His wife is always ringing him just after shoot-outs or when he’s burying dead bodies. At one point, he assures her he’ll be home for his eight-year-old son’s birthday. As strangely kind as these trained killers can be, its Smith that proves roguish ne’er-do-wells are far better than their more clean-cut cousins.
Smith is a decent man at heart. He only fell into a life of drudgery and violence after a cliched but nonetheless affecting tragedy set him on that path. Goodness shines out of his every pore even if those pores are physically clogged with sweat and dirt. Throughout the film Smith provides several lessons in basic moral decency. Use your indicators or get rammed off the road. Don’t shoot dogs. Don’t slurp coffee or you’ll be tied to a chair. Practise basic foot hygiene or risk having your disgusting toes blown off. And last but not least don’t farm babies for bone marrow in order to save yourself from cancer so that you can win the US Presidency off the back of false gun control promises. Seems pretty simple but you can imagine what happens to the person who does this in the film. I’ll give you a hint: BANG! Oh and don’t piss Clive Owen off, I’m sure he’s nice but I wouldn’t want to risk it, especially if there are guns, carrots or both around.
Shoot ‘Em Up is pure unadulterated entertainment. At one point Smith and D. Q are having sex when masked soldiers burst into the apartment. Smith shoots them all rolling from position to position like a John Woo adaptation of the Kama Sutra. When the gun smoke clears and D. Q is satisfied Smith quips: “Talk about blowing your load”. Shoot ‘Em Up is the kind of movie that, if you know what to expect, will leave you punching the air, laughing, flinching, and cheering. It’s an action film without shame. And that’s exactly how it should be.