A strange thing happens when an actor begins to win awards. No matter how horrid their previous films may have been, audiences begin to forget all but their very best outings. However, this phenomenon also results in any subsequent bad choices sticking out like a sore thumb. For recent Academy Award nominees Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti, Shoot 'Em Up is one of these bad choices.
The paper-thin plot consists of Clive Owen's Mr. Smith getting involved in a series of gunfights against mysterious goons-led by Paul Giamatti's Mr. Hertz-hell-bent on tracking down a baby delivered by Smith during a gunfight. Against his better judgment, Smith takes the child and tries to find out why the gun-toning lunatics are after the newborn. While the plot itself is horribly confusing and disorganized, it leads to the real reason audiences will flock to Shoot 'Em Up: gunfights.
The gunfights in the film are meticulously pieced together. Writer/director Michael Davis and his stunt coordinators have set up a series of audaciously entertaining duels, usually pitting Clive Owen against dozens upon dozens of cannon fodder stooges. Memorable moments see Owen delivering a baby during a gunfight and then insist the mother breast-feed the child to stop him from crying, fighting a man in a washroom using the blow-dryer as a weapon and shooting people during car chases and while falling out of a plane. Each action sequence is accompanied by loud rock music suddenly beginning to play, a handy cue for the audience to snap out of the comatose state the "story" has placed them in.
Despite the amazingly bold nature of the gunfights, all meaning is stripped from them by the weak script. The audience is given no adequate explanation why they should care about any of the characters-Owen's honorable hero, Giamatti's zany villain or Monica Belucci's pragmatic hooker-and thus nothing is ever at stake. The film is an especially frustrating experience for viewers who recall Clive Owen in Closer or Giamatti in Sideways. Owen seems to be channeling Arnold Schwarzenegger's action hero persona and Giamatti manicly delivers an over-the-top performance, but the film would have been exactly the same had neither of them agreed to star in it. Schwarzenegger cultivated his persona over many years, in part because action roles were his main strength and in part because action roles were his only strength. Owen and Giamatti are not hampered by such problems and Shoot 'Em Up is not a film that demands the involvement of Oscar-calibre actors. While it may be fun watching Owen mow down dozens upon dozens of faceless goons or unsettlingly glimpsing Giamatti grope a dead woman to figure out where Owen has taken the baby, replace the big-name actors with anybody else and the film's quality is unchanged.
Arriving at the tail-end of a successful summer, Shoot 'Em Up is sure to garner attention for its lavish action scenes and impressive body count. Unfortunately, this summer's big hits about robots in disguise, unwanted pregnancies or amnesiac spies all had logical storylines, a fact likely to dramatically trim down Shoot 'Em Up's repeat business.