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A Bond Experience 

Shoot 'Em Up proves its star could have been a killer 007.

Paul Giamatti: Offer him a Merlot, and he'll shoot your ass.
  • Paul Giamatti: Offer him a Merlot, and he'll shoot your ass.

There have already been critical rumblings about the extreme violence in Shoot 'Em Up, but it's hard to get too worked up about a film whose very title announces its maker's intent -- and which opens by raking the New Line Cinema corporate logo with machine-gun fire (a gesture long overdue). Yes, the opening scene -- wherein Clive Owen jams a carrot stick into a bad guy's eye and out the back of his head -- cheapens all involved. But you can't stay mad at a movie that soon has the hero helping a woman give birth with one hand and shooting encroaching thugs with the other. Moments later, as any fast-thinking gentleman would, he severs the baby's umbilical chord by shooting it in two, prompting the new mother to scream (quite sensibly), "What the hell are you doing?"

I mean, hey: That's funny.

Okay. Maybe it's a guy thing.

Clive Owen is the carrot-chomping Mr. Smith, a tough-looking guy in a long leather coat. We find him sitting on a bus bench on a seedy Manhattan side street, minding his own mysterious business, when a screaming pregnant woman (Ramona Pringle) runs past, followed by a profanity-spewing, gun-wielding baddie. Sighing, Smith gives chase, leading to a warehouse shootout involving an assortment of heavily armed creeps.

Said creeps are being led, lo and behold, by a snarling Paul Giamatti. Apparently he's decided that, after suffering artfully in Sideways and The Cinderella Man and still not winning a statue, he deserves a silly but lucrative action-movie moment to call his own. Besides, what mortal man could resist the chance to repeatedly fire a semiautomatic at a guy so heedlessly, arrogantly handsome as Clive Owen?

But back to the guns. And the kid. That adorable tyke -- a boy, of course, delivered during the warehouse shootout -- falls into Smith's sole care. (With Children of Men, this marks Owen's second consecutive onscreen baby rescue.) After tucking the boy under his arm like a football, they take to the streets, where Smith attempts to fathom why an army of hit men has been dispatched to kill a newborn. And because Clive Owen must have someone to kiss, a brainy, sultry Italian prostitute (Monica Bellucci) comes along for the ride. Oh, and she happens to be lactating. How convenient.

Writer-director Michael Davis, who has made four previous films that no one remembers, freely admits to lifting the idea for Shoot 'Em Up from the classic baby-in-peril hospital shootout in Hard Boiled, John Woo's 1992 Hong Kong thriller. Davis' candor is admirable, but it made me think of a line Bob Dylan once sang: "Ah, if there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now." Originality is no longer the path to success (maybe it never was), which is why Shoot 'Em Up contains enthusiastic nods -- let's call them loving homage -- to Raising Arizona, The Matrix, and a British series about a spy named Bond.

Riffing on 007 movies is a telltale sign of lazy screenwriting. But here, the jokes -- which include a wonderfully ridiculous skydiving shootout and an end title sequence with sexily silhouetted women writhing atop gun barrels -- take on new resonance. That's because of Owen. There's no way to watch this previously serious, Oscar-nominated Brit run, leap, and fire a gun in a single, elegant bound, and not end up wondering just how close he came to landing the most recent Bond role, the part that went instead to Daniel Craig. Owen, who has the hairy-chested good looks of Sean Connery, has denied being considered for Bond, but that's hard to believe. Shoot 'Em Up is guilty-pleasure junk; Giamatti surely took his part for the sheer manly-man hell of it.

Owen would likely deny the theory, but it's fun to imagine that he took the movie as a way of thumbing his nose -- just a tiny bit and all in good sport -- at Craig, his countryman and acting equal, who may have simply out-pec'd Owen for the role of a lifetime.

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