Director Michael Davis makes the transition from straight-to-DVD stinkers to the bigscreen in conspicuous fashion, with an action movie that is violent and vile in equal measure. When hitman Paul Giamatti is dispatched to assassinate a pregnant woman, not-so-innocent bystander Clive Owen intervenes on the baby’s behalf, unleashing a firefight of epic proportions. Good taste is the first fatality in this gonzo thrill-seeker, sure to offend mainstream dispositions, yet too stylistically audacious to dismiss outright. Like “Running Scared” and “Boondock Saints” before it, shamelessly sordid pic, which opens Sept. 7, will likely fall short theatrically but find its audience on DVD.
As Mr. Smith (Owen) is minding his own business, a car comes careening around the corner in pursuit of a pregnant woman. Smith pulls a carrot from his trenchcoat and takes a hearty bite, a gesture meant to set the tone for the cartoonishly over-the-top action sequences to come. A better indicator comes moments later when Smith drives the carrot through the would-be assassin’s skull, or, shortly thereafter, as he delivers the woman’s baby amid heavy crossfire, severing the umbilical cord with a well-aimed bullet.
Smith survives the opening action scene — a jaw-dropping ordeal for both its ingenuity and sheer tactlessness — but the anonymous woman isn’t so lucky, leaving Smith in charge of the orphaned infant. Luckily, he just so happens to know a lactating hooker, DQ (Monica Bellucci as a Madonna-whore hybrid), who, with understandable reluctance, agrees to assume the mother’s role in this dysfunctional family.
After a little snooping, the couple uncovers a convoluted plot by which an ailing presidential candidate (Daniel Pilon) plans to harvest bone marrow from surrogate babies (typical of Davis’ sense of humor, the artificially inseminated mothers provide the off-color pun of the movie’s title). Giamatti is in gruffly manic mode as Hertz, a short-tempered assassin with no more luck than Elmer Fudd in capturing his prey, but a nearly inexhaustible supply of henchmen to assist the cause.
Hertz sets one trap after another to ensnare Smith and kill the child, thwarted at every turn by clever tricks that would make even John Woo jealous. Smith’s backstory is never revealed, but it’s clear the character is no stranger to heavy artillery and ordnance, with a MacGyver-like skill for devising impromptu Rube Goldberg contraptions.
Owen’s rugged persona lends itself to the hard-boiled hero. (Could any other actor make eating carrots look cool? In this film-noir world, the vegetable supplants cigarettes, while conveniently doubling as a deadly weapon.) And though Owen claims he was never offered the role of James Bond, Davis’ action-movie homage revels in those details sidelined in “Casino Royale” — namely, groan-inducing one-liners and degrading sexual shenanigans.
The director’s inspiration was Chow Yun-Fat’s baby-saving scene in “Hard Boiled,” and Davis’ elaborately choreographed set pieces demonstrate no shortage of invention. Still, it’s hard to appreciate the action without thinking of the baby, tucked under Owen’s arm like some kind of football, in peril at all times.
The film’s gentlest scene features the helpless child, stashed in a grimy bathtub for lack of a bassinet, watching wide-eyed as Smith demonstrates the different parts of his pistol. Moved by this display of tenderness, DQ promptly seduces him, but their sexual romp is interrupted by the arrival of Hertz’s goons. And so it is that “Shoot ‘Em Up” features all stages of life — intercourse, birth and death (but mostly death) — meted out amid elaborate gun battles.
At one point, Smith and DQ discover the baby doesn’t cry in the presence of heavy metal — which makes up the majority of the film’s soundtrack, lending a gnarly energy to the whole affair. Nor does it seem to mind heavy gunfire, which is just as well, since the child has known little else in its short life.
Somewhere in all this lies a statement about gun control, a mixed message if ever there was one, and New Line shouldn’t be surprised to find this pic in the sights of concerned parents. Though it belongs to the same questionable new category of exploitation film as “Smokin’ Aces” and “Domino,” there’s nothing to say Davis’ audacious style wouldn’t function equally well with less offensive material. One can only imagine how his energetic talents might have redeemed “The Pacifier.”