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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Vigilante Comprehensive: Shoot 'Em Up, reviewed

Our movie-going options for the weekend were 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot 'Em Up (aka, according to M: "Paul Giamatti and Monica Belucci? Movie, have you been reading my diary?" Given the weekend box office numbers, we did well to see the latter. It does not bid fair to be around long, about which I have mixed feelings.

My feelings aside, I'm actually surprised by the combination of the surprisingly- respectable-for-that-kind-of-movie ratings (complete with a reversal of the usual Cream of the Crop-Unwashed Masses relationship: War has a 16%/27% to SEU's 64%/52%) and the incredibly poor box office showing: It made just a hair more than The Bourne Ultimatum in its 6th week and, perhaps more telling, Balls of Fury in its second.

As for my mixed feelings, well . . . . First of all I should admit that Shoot 'Em Up is the first time I've found Clive Owen likable. (I found him watchable and, in many ways, well cast in Children of Men, but that's not quite the same thing.) The character is downright allegorical: The name Smith is literal, as he continually makes physics his bitch throughout the movie, but Smith is also Blondie is The Stranger is Yuen is Ronin is Man, etc. But Owen hits all the right notes about Smith's comprehensive crankiness from the very first "Fuckin' hell." He hates asshole drivers and people who park in handicapped spaces and politicians who break their promises to finance the man-sized safes in their offices, designed to preserve their own decaying hides. My only Owen love sprung from his universal hate. Not surprising at all, I suppose, when you really think about it.

Moving on from Owen, Paul Giamatti is incredibly good fun, although his character is not especially well worked out. Early on, Hertz's (see? there's allegory enough to go around) uncanny ability to find Smith in a city of—well, I don't know how many: It's supposed to be somewhere in America, a line of dialogue indicates that it could be New York or DC, it's shot in Toronto, and it looks like none of the above, so let's say a big city—is born of the fact that he, too, grooves on Smith's hate. He's read the books, seen the movies, reviewed Joseph Campbell's thoughts on the theme, and burned the t-shirt: Of course he knows where Smith is going. Later on, though, there's less of the kind of fun, twisted quasi-romantic relationship that you get between Bond and his villains and Hertz becomes nothing more than an especially icky villain. Shame, that.

Monica Belucci, what to say? Of course, she's hot as hell, and one must give props to the casting department for giving this kind of role to a woman who is actually 3 days older than Clive Owen. And Belucci occasionally brings to Donna (yup, this is DEFINITELY AN ALLEGORY for those of you playing along at home) some moments of humor, innocence, and insight that make you laugh in surprised delight. Unfortunately, the character and the entire movie's take on women is a tragic, nauseating mess. Shoot 'Em Up fails the Bechdel-Wallace test more epically than any student has failed a test of mine. Yes, even the ones who think that telecommunicakery and zat'nit'kitel really are answers to something.

I know, I know, I should just accept that these movies aren't made for me and go back to my romances, right? Well, pardon me, but fuck that noise in general, and specifically fuck it right in the ear when you've decided to make your movie a pastiche of Westerns/General Frontier Stories/Dystopian Allegories, well, shit, even the women-folk get a seat at the table.

But Shoot 'Em Up has worse girlfriend problems than Crank and Ghost Rider combined. The reason that Smith ends up getting Donna involved in the whole thing? Why she's a lactating prostitute who works in a house that caters to fetishes, including infantilism, of course! Seriously: Lactating Prostitute Who Had a Stillborn Baby When Her Pimp Punched Her in the Stomach. Frank Miller wishes so bad that he'd thought of that.

And this plot element (although it is, in some ways, legitimately part of the plot and characterization) actually slaps another genre on the pastiche-ial fire: SEU is set, surprisingly, some kind of vegan utopia where even the male characters wouldn't dream of artificial feeding. But when Paul Giamatti starts calling for every "wet nurse and lactating prostitute in the city," it crossed my mind that this was not my beautiful pronursing PSA. If one can put the sweeping commodification/objectification of Belucci's character for just a moment (I know, I know, it's so diabolically thorough that this is almost impossible), there's just so much utterly gratuitous misogyny in Shoot 'Em Up.

Really, I don't have Crank on the brain. It's a movie I very rarely think about, other than the occasional, "Was it really as fucked up as I remember it being? Oh, yeah, it was!" sanity check. But comparisons between Crank and Shoot 'Em Up spring very naturally to mind. Crank was quite explicitly a movie emulation of the Jack-Thompson-bait type of video game. Its look, its characters, and its nonsensical rotolevered plot substitute were drawing on that "text." In that sense, the "role" that Eve (Amy Smart and another good allegorical name) plays is understandable. Excusable, probably not, but its origins are, at least, clear.

Shoot 'Em Up has many ways in which it's like a video game, too. Smith's Rube Goldbergian approach to life and its problems, hearken back to nothing so much as the old Infocom games lke Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (remember the precise and improbable-enough-to-keep-the-Heart-of-Gold-going-for-a-good-long-while sequence of events necessary to obtain the babelfish?). Given that vibe, it was not just appalling, but truly surprising to find the movie drawing on some tried-and-true, repugnant gaming tropes.

Long before one gained "health" by fucking a prostitute in GTA, there was a mostly text-based game called Friday the 13th (why is unclear, but I suppose it wasn't any less clear than why the TV series bore the name) in which one gained health by raping a nurse; right now, I'm playing Dead Rising, in which I can gain "erotica" points by taking cleavage and up-skirt shots of women, dead, undead, or alive. Shoot 'Em Up has similar misogyny-based "achievements." Hertz gets the Extrasuperdoublefudgey Villain Achievement for copping a feel off a dead woman. Smith, in contrast gets Extrasuperdoublefudgey Unexpected Hero Achievement not only for delivering the nameless-soon-to-be-dead woman's baby amid gunfire (and shooting the umbilical cord in two!), he has to rip her gown, exposing her breasts, and tell her to feed the baby (um, just so we're clear, that part is actually before she's dead).

Even if this all didn't feel so gratuitous and out of place for the sources on which the movie is drawing, in other ways, the movie knows better. It's smarter than that. I said above that Belucci's character, jaw-droppingly bizarre as it is, belongs in the story, which is rather about family values in the sense that The Simpsons is: Weird love is better than no love, and all that good stuff. (In fact, one of the more egregious violations of the spirit of the B-W rule, even while honoring the letter of it, is when Donna turns a trick in the alley, then has a conversation with the woman who runs the guns-n-ammo shop about how a bullet proof vest is a better investment than a crib.)

In another moment that makes me think it's worth my while to try to shame such a silly movie, Smith tells Donna that he's the Unabomber. Donna replies: "They caught him!" and Smith slyly says: "That's what they think." And he is rather a liberal, utopian, carrot-munching Unabomber. He's withdrawn from society, he grows his own food, he runs around munching carrots and teaching babies that the best safety a gun can have is the finger of the person who opts out of owning guns. Certainly that's all horribly mashed up with a predictable plot revelation that Smith lost his own wife and child to a shotgun-toting lunatic in a fast-food restaurant and ZOMG! HE SOLD HIM THE GUNS!

But for all that, it's a movie that can and should have been better than many of the repulsive misogynist moments that made no difference whatever to the plot or characterization. I know Paul Giamatti's evil: He doesn't have to threaten to rape Donna with his gun (and for that matter, Billy Zane didn't need to grab the baby to get in a lifeboat, we get it, ok?).

And now back to your regularly scheduled girl-appropriate blogging.

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