Thursday, 20 September 2007

Shoot Em Up; possibly even dumber than it sets out to be

You know how it is with the movies. You go to see something, and before you see that, the trailers spur you to reconsider the decision. You look in bemusement at the ads for coming attractions, knowing that they've chosen to show only ads for movies which they figure the audience for this particular movie are going to like, and all you can think is some variation of "Dear God, don't let this movie suck as much as those ones look like doing." Except when you're thinking "Dear God, can I possibly be as big a retard as these ads assume I am?"

Worse than that, sometimes the trailers are better than the movie you're seeing; I've lost track of the number of times I've come home and spent more time talking about the trailers than I did about the movie I'd notionally paid to see.

Of course, the trailer is almost invariably better than the movie it's for. It has to be. It's all the best bits, crammed into a couple of minutes. Frenetic, dazzling, jump cut, exciting, you name it. The actual film is going to be a slow paced character driven affair in comparison, even if Michael Bay directed it under orders from Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

This must have started to get to Michael Davis even more than it's got to me, because he's just unleashed a film which is essentially the world's first ninety minute trailer. Despite what you may have heard, the action does occasionally let up. There must be as much as ten or fifteen minutes when no-one's getting shot. I think this is so that the audience can have the occasional chance to stop laughing and get its breath back.

Notice I say laughing. The film is like an extended take of that scene in Hot Shots Part Deux where Charlie Sheen hoses down the jungle with an M60 while a counter at the bottom of the screen logs the number of people he's killed so far, with helpful hints flashing up from time to time to remind you which Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies he's just passed out. Hundreds of people are dead, but it's funny right? That must have been more or less the pitch.

The body count did start to get to me after a while. At a conservative estimate 150 people get killed in the course of the movie, in situations of growing ludicrousness. The idiocy is supposed to undercut the killings, I guess, but there were moments when I wished for the film to do an Austin Powers and break from the action to show us the families at home wondering if thug number 1 was going to be back in time for dinner.

Except that you rapidly realise that everything is deliberate. The film is too clever, too inventive, too sharply written for the team not to have been aware of the unsettling effect of playing so many killings as a joke. Everything is just that little bit off; the wisecracks which Clive Owen's character tops his killings with are actually stupider than the rest of his dialogue. When his character's talking to people, he's sharp and clever and opinionated; when he delivers a coup de grace and its obligatory one liner, the gag is obvious, perfunctory and delivered with the same off hand distaste you realise you've always kind of felt for the Schwarzenegger one-liners. "Oh god", his tone seems to imply, "Now I have to say something apposite and witty."

The physical set-ups are ingenious, without making a bit of sense. Why does Mr Smith live in an abandoned warehouse with a conveyer belt in the middle of the living room? No reason, other than the fun they're about to have doing the shoot-out. For as sure as anything, if Mr Smith stands still for more than a few minutes, gun play will once again break out. In a weirdly post modern way the characters are quite aware of the idiocy of the continuity - at one point Paul Giamatti's cackling Mr Hertz finds Smith's hideout without even the pretence of explanation, and while he's breaking into it, his henchman ask "How does he know where it is?" "He just knows things about people." When Mr Smith has to jump out of a moving aeroplane, there's a parachute to hand. We've seen that time and again in the movies, though never anywhere else. The point at which we appreciate, once again, that the director is taking the piss, is when Mr Smith is followed into the air by hordes of armed skydivers in full rig firing machine guns at him. As Butch said to Sundance "Who are these guys?" Where did they get all this kit from when they can't possibly have been expecting to need it? The midair gunfight which follows is as hilarious and imaginative as all the fights which have gone before, but by now even the slow learners ought to be starting to realise that this is satire. Just in case they haven't, when Smith finally comes to earth, it's amid a field littered with unfortunate skydivers for as far as the eye can see.

The whole movie keeps picking up the time honoured shorthand of action movies and saying "See, this is stupid." The one-liners are deliberately lame even as the rest of the dialogue demonstrates that the lameness must be deliberate. The continuity and logic are so contrary as to hammer home the point that continuity in most action movies is a joke (for a glaring example, check out the time line in Die Hard 4.0). And all the best bits are done with simple imagination; there's a scene involving a hand dryer which is wonderfully lateral, and almost the only piece of non-violent ingenuity in the film is also the single cleverest set up; the lock to Mr Smith's fortress of solitude is a wonderfully heath robinson contrivance involving a live rat.

And yet, even while pointing out that the whole action movie cliche is as dumb as a bag of hammers, the film is delivering some of the most satisfying action scenes I've ever seen; clever, thrilling and expertly economical; yes, they're over the top, but the beauty is that Mr Smith never has a wasted motion no matter how extravagant the set-up might be.

Which is where it might all go horribly wrong. I think a lot of people are not going to get the joke. They're going to skate past the vicious attack on the American gun industry which lies at the heart of the movie, and just read it as yet another action movie, more fun than most. And it would be hard to blame them. The gun industry is the villain of the whole movie, but in something as deliberately jangled and messy as this is, it would be easy to lose track of it, or just assume that the message is yet another thing which isn't intended to be taken seriously.

Still for me the most satisfying thing about the film is that Mr Smith is the first action hero I can remember in a long time who is angry about the same things that normal people get angry about; inconsiderate driving, low level rudeness, all the bits of avoidable stupidity and personal meanness that make this a less than ideal world. It's nice to see the hero of a movie finally say just why it is that Mercedes drivers are such jerks; because to get enough money to buy a Mercedes required them to be selfish and inconsiderate and so they can't help driving the same way. And it's nice, in a bad way, to see the hero then run a completely random Mercedes off the road just for annoying him. We've all felt like doing that. In a BMW we've specifically decided to steal because its owner left it in a handicapped parking space.

As a final thought, this makes a useful parallel text for Smokin Aces, another over the top violence fest which sets out to say something about the culture of violence through hyperbole. Except that Smokin Aces pretty much skunked the job up, never knowing when to stop with the bad bits or keep going with the things which were actually clever. Whatever else you can say about Shoot Em Up, it never loses track of what it's trying to do. And that makes it a much better film and a much more satisfying one to watch. I didn't come out of it thinking "if only they'd done more of that or less of this." In this day and age, serving up just enough is a rare skill.

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