In the period in which I did my time as an art student, “mixed media” junk-art was big. Maybe it still is, I dunno, I don’t live in that world anymore. For those of you who’ve NEVER lived there, the basic idea of the stuff is to make something that looks as much as possible like it got mashed together “organically” (translation: “by accident”) yet wound up looking in some way compelling. You’re already thinking, “sounds easy, just bash some crap around and bullshit a rationale for it,” but that’s not exactly true: Most of the professors could always see through that, or at least were good guesses as to which of us were likely to pull it. (::raises hand::) No, the “trick” was to actually do your best BUT, if you made an actual mistake, to pass it off as one of the many “intentional mistakes” making up the greater piece. If you were REALLY ballsy, or if you were a woman and suspected that the professor harbored an ambition of sleeping with you, you might even get away with “that wasn’t the original intention, but it wound up opening new possibilities so I kept it in.”
Short version: The two inherent problem with art-imitating-junk are, #1: It can be tough to tell how much is imitation and how much is just junk, and #2: It can be even tougher to argue how much it, if at all, it ought to “matter.” (all-time champion “textbook case” movie of this type: “Attack of The Killer Tomatoes.”) Consider: If a fellow shows up tommorrow with the cure for cancer, does it really make any difference if he found it through years of dogged, meticulous research or if he just spilled the “wrong” random chemicals into the same kettle?
In this particular case, we can take a certain amount of weight off the issue immediately by confirming right off the bat that “Shoot ‘Em Up” is, in cinematic terms, most definately NOT the cure for cancer. It’s not even really the cure for a hangnail. Or even acne. In fact, if it WERE some kind of medicine, it likely wouldn’t even be very effective against mild heartburn. Despite the requisite Internet hype, this is NOT the “next level,” “perfect example,” “ultimate extrapolation” etc. of ANYTHING. Even amid it’s own genre, it’s not nearly as good as the two “Transporter” films. But it IS art-imitating-junk, and thus it does beg the troublesome “how much” and “does it matter” queries.
For analysis, it’s best to start with the “junk” in question. Though it’s obvious from the setup – black-clad gunslinger (Clive Owen) protects baby from army of killers – that actionphile writer/director Michael Davis has “studied under” John Woo, along with most of the other “Asian Masters” of the genre (the supremely icky “evil scheme” and the particular fetish that Monica Bellucci’s “hooker with a heart of gold” heroine specializes in indicate he’s also “up” on his Takeshi Miike and Chan Wook-Park) but those are generally ‘good’ action movies…
…And “Shoot ‘Em Up’s” ambition, seemingly, is to be a BAD one. After about ten minutes or so it becomes clear that the film is charging, fully-aware and with great commitment (or maybe not, but lets not get ahead of ourselves), away from Woo and into the realm of “Double Team,” “Tango & Cash,” “Stone Cold” and the collective filmography of Lorenzo Lamas: The land of “so bad it’s good” disasterpieces action-adoring movie geeks prize for their grand-scale “are you KIDDING ME???” spectacle of unintentional hilarity. These are the “heights” “Shoot ‘Em Up” hits, but the sticky-wicket is that it appears to go there on purpose: The difference between this film and a genuine-article like “Half Past Dead” is the difference between seeing a skateboarder hurt himself in a funny (to you) way while attempting what was meant to be a cool trick and seeing Johnny Knoxville hurt himself in a funny (to him AND you) way while attempting to hurt himself in a funny way.
And believe me, “Shoot ‘Em Up” has it’s so-bad-it’s-good action movie bases covered: The gunfights make no logical sense, defy all known physics and involve a nigh-superhuman hero who never misses a shot tearing through waves of bullet-magnet henchmen who couldn’t shoot a legless elephant. It shamelessly thrusts vulnerable targets (pregnant women, babies) into great danger in order to provide the suspense an un-killable hero lacks. The good guy has a “cute tic,” in this case he’s constantly chomping carrots a’la the similarly-unstoppable Bugs Bunny (get it??), and caps off his most impressive kills with groaner one-liners. The bad guy (Paul Giamatti) speaks Smartypants Supervillian Condescension fluently to his henchmen. Exposition on things we’ve already figured out is delivered with thudding literalism, usually in ADR voiceover.
It’s obvious that Davis intends most or possibly all of this to be a lark, a self-parody joke to his fellow genre devotees. The trouble arises in how difficult it seems to be to sort out how much of the “funny” is there intentionally and how much happened organically. Example: Of course the hero’s insistance on post-kill punchlines is an in-joke, but is the fact that the jokes are stunningly bad PART of the joke or just honest-to-God bad writing? Ditto some of the just-plain-awful straight dialogue. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that any film that has a character say of the hero “I figured out who you hate most: yourself” and NOT be doing so as satire, but on the other hand I DID see “Transformers” so I guess it’s possible. On the OTHER hand, strongest possible evidence that this is all one big joke: Amid all the massively fetishized (hell, outright sexualized) footage of firearms and their workings, “Shoot ‘Em Up” eventually positions itself as, I shit you not, a pro gun-control message movie. For real.
So, which is it? Art-imitating-junk or junk-masquerading-as-art-imitating-junk? Overall, my guess would be that it’s a lot more of Option #1 than most of it’s detractors will admit, but ALSO a lot more of Option #2 than it’s makers will readily “cop” to. The more uneasy question is whether or not the answer matters. “Shoot ‘Em Up” is a so-bad-it’s-good junkfood action epic of absolutely no nutritional value, and on that level I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” or “3000 Miles to Graceland.” If all, or even MOST, of it’s eye-poppingly ridiculous execution was an intentional mash-note to bottom-shelf action trash, Michael Davis just might be an expert genre-analyst/satirist. If it’s often startling (seeming) ineptitude really IS ineptitude, then he could be ::shudder:: another Uwe Boll. But, so what? If I liked the final product, and I did with reservations; and if others hated it, does the “intent” really make a substantive difference for EITHER opinion? A like is, after all, a like and dislike is still a dislike.
How can YOU expect to react? Well, I can think of at least quick test. The Brian Bosworth vehicle “Stone Cold” is one of the silliest, dumbest, most inane action movies ever produced. I love it to death, and bought it the first day it was out on DVD. If you know of this movie, also bought it or WILL buy it now that you know the DVD is out, you’ll probably have a good time with “Shoot ‘Em Up”… though possibly not the good time you were intended to.
FINAL RATING: 6/10