Archetypes can turn into cliches and nonstop action films sometimes morph into white noise. Tarantino understands this-his horrific scenes are punctuated by long insipid conversations about pop culture. Lesser directors, like Robert Rodriguez, just keep piling up the gross-outs, wandering deeper and deeper into taboos, which can be fun, but run the risk of just wearing out the audience. John Woo’s hyper-violent masterpiece Hard Boiled features a shootout in a hospital. In it, Chow Yun Fat’s policeman grabs a baby out of a nursery and, while cradling it, blows away countless villains with a hail of bullets that seems to lull more than alarm the child. Shoot Em Up steals this idea-which in turn was stolen from the Lone Wolf and Cub films and comic books. The problem with Shoot Em Up is that this is the only idea in an otherwise tediously bloody film. Like the baby, I was quickly lulled into a daze by the hale of blood-spattering rounds.
The story’s not strictly the problem, either, though it steals from multiple sources as disparate as Warner Bros. cartoons and James Bond films. It begins sharply with a pregnant woman running past our Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) sitting dispassionately at a grimy bus stop. Once drawn in, Smith strikes hard with a deadly carrot and a penchant for absolute mayhem against a world that includes a baby bone-marrow farm perched above a heavy metal club and a slew of caricature thugs including a presidential candidate running on a gun control ticket-the word preposterous even strains credulity in this whirlwind.
The problem is the lack of artistry. Woo’s films have lyrical moments, his shooters fly through the air in slow motion glory. After all, it’s the unlikely choreography we love. Shoot Em Up is grimy, violent, and has Paul Giamatti as a henpecked killer. What it needs is some more pretty moments to make the fighting worthwhile and the bloodshed not so childishly commonplace.