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Shoot 'Em Up

Left, R1, Up, Down, A button…then you realize you don't actually have a game controller in your hand. Not even a Wii Remote. But the action on screen as Clive Owen ducks, dodges, weaves and shoots is so engaging, sweaty and immediate that you'd swear this is the best videogame you've ever played. Perhaps the biggest unremarked irony in Shoot 'em Up is that there doesn't seem to be a videogame tie-in.

Of course, a videogame would have to slow down in order for a normal human being to react as fast as Owen's mysterious Mr. Smith. No human could react that fast, and that's part of the gag -- Smith is like Bugs Bunny without the penchant for drag, at least until the sequel. Just one more cartoon character in a genre that has become increasingly cartoonish to satisfy its jaded audience.

Writer/director Michael Davis famously designed this film with animatics before he even cast, because he knew that this thing had to be completely about the over-the-top violence. Does that make this stylish parody, satire, or merely exploitative? All that I can say for sure is that I laughed almost continuously from start to finish.

If you want some semblance of a plot, the film does offer one, but it's just as ridiculous as the violence. What little exposition exists comes fairly late into the film. Instead, Davis offers action and character. We first see Clive Owen doing the most deliberate job of eating a carrot ever put on film. He sits at a bus stop, where a pregnant woman runs by clutching her stomach and crying. It soon becomes apparent she has men after her, and with a few choice expletives, Owen stands up and enters a fray he doesn't want or understand.

The nameless woman (Ramona Pringle) survives the initial delirious, pulse-pounding attack, revealed to be led by a rabid Paul Giamatti after Owen delivers her baby and shoots the umbilical cord. And this all happens in the first five minutes.

Shoot 'em Up plays out like what Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero should have been. It covers every major action franchise, playing out all the clichés with a merciless humor without ever actually calling attention to them. Either you get it or you don't.

Even to comment on the acting seems beside the point. Owen has his heavy-lidded tough guy act down cold, allowed to flex his natural British accent but rarely allowed to show a range of emotion. Instead, he's just a perfect killing machine, Bond mixed with Bourne while even mocking his own appearance in the BMW action series The Hire.

Matching him and relishing every moment of being a villain, Giamatti creates yet another memorable persona. Hen-pecked via cellphone, his psychotic family man/hitman makes a perfect foil, claiming to be emotionless but wearing every single nerve on the outside of his skin.

Then there's Monica Bellucci as a lactating hooker with a heart of gold. Those lips, that accent, those impossible smoldering eyes are no more real than Clive Owen's apparent indestructibility, and Davis takes the combination to a logical ridiculous extreme halfway through the movie that, while not exactly explicit, will make artistic porn directors green with envy. Why had no one thought of it before?

It defies my efforts to think critically, commenting on action films while actually being the best action film we've had in a long time. So go see it. Practice some videogames. Then get ready for the sequel, Mow 'em Down.

(apologies to Ted Kopulos for stealing his lobby punchline.)

Derek McCaw

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