'Shoot 'Em Up's' brand of seedy satire takes gratuitous violence to the next level

Grade: A-

"Shoot 'Em Up," which hits theaters nationwide tomorrow, opens with typical action-movie melodrama. We see the unassuming hero - Mr. Smith, whom Clive Owen plays with a brilliantly stone-faced demeanor - sitting on a bench by the street. He's minding his own business, finishing his coffee.

A pregnant woman, quietly weeping to herself, scurries on by. Smith pays her no attention. She's followed by a stout man clad in black leather. Smith still pays no attention. The stout man turns to watch the woman round a corner, looks back at Smith, and draws his weapon.

Smith stands up. He curses and throws down his coffee. He's aware of his action-hero status, but he never asked for any action. He finds the whole good-guy routine tiresome, but he'll do it anyway. Not because he wants to, but because there's some kind of moral obligation involved. And if you've got the wits and the firepower, you had better be prepared to help out. Smith has both, so it looks like it's up to him.

Action heroes who pretend to be in these situations by chance are absurd. The fact of the matter is that the action finds the action hero. And like it or not, he's got to suck it up and kick some ass.

"Shoot 'Em Up" takes those last words to heart. Director Michael Davis appears to love the action movie genre and hate it in equal measures.

He adores the genre's panache, and its sense of daring in the face of digression. And yet he finds it ridiculous that some directors play off the action like it could happen to any normal person in the midst of any normal situation - that somehow a relatively ordinary character with extraordinary skills could back-flip off a wall, kick someone behind him and not exist in a comic book world.

Davis embraces the absurdity of the action genre. In the film's first sequence, Owen saves the pregnant woman from her would-be attacker and then blasts his way through scores of armed men John Woo-style - all while delivering the woman's baby.

Davis later tops that with another sequence of action movie multitasking that involves Smith making love to his old flame, played by Monica Bellucci, and killing half-a-dozen black ops agents at the same time.

But the movie isn't just a sideshow exploration into how many feats Owen can perform while killing people. A plot - or something kind of resembling one - works itself in halfway through the film.

It involves something about a hatchery above a heavy metal club where babies are harvested for their bone marrow. That hatchery somehow connects to gang lord Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamati), a major weapons manufacturer and a Democratic politician who's attempting to pass new gun control laws.

But, really, no one cares.

"Shoot 'Em Up" is pure, visceral enjoyment - one well-choreographed action sequence after another, each attempting to top the last. Sure, the plot's there to sew everything together. Don't expect audiences to be interested in the action, unless there's some reason, if only a minor one, for all the bloodshed.

But "Shoot 'Em Up" is more about character, wit and style and less about story, pacing and surprise. Davis has no pretentious hopes of making the next mobster masterpiece or of communicating some heartfelt message about the dangers involved in owning and operating firearms.

He knows just what he's got on his hands: a simple but fun summer action flick. And yes, it's stupid. And yes, it's shortsighted. And yes, it's a little corny. But it's also one of the most lurid and entertaining pieces of cinema anyone might see this year.

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