Clive Owen stars as a homeless man named Smith who goes to the aid of a mother being pursued by gun-wielding thugs. When the mom dies in the ensuing battle, Smith takes it upon himself to protect the baby from the army of killers after him. Along the way he enlists the help of Donna (Monica Bellucci), a hooker and eventual romantic interest. As the film progresses the plot gets more and more insane, eventually leading to the White House.
There are a couple of things that make Shoot 'Em Up great and a lot that holds it back. The negatives first: the settings are extremely ugly and dull, falling under the Industrial Action category I discussed with Terminator. Lots of abandoned warehouses and gray and brown cityscapes that leave little impression on you as a whole. Even if the action is inventive, I feel the movie loses a lot of memorability because of how bland the sets are. Another negative is that I felt the direction didn't go far enough to make the quick cut style work. It's very Crank-like in the careless and spastic direction but doesn't have Crank's style. Rather than add some unique camera-work or filters, something along those lines, it just goes for the quick cuts and heavy metal music. It works to a point but feels weak overall.
These two facets make it easy to understand why Shoot 'Em Up has been buried ten years later by action and exploitation/schlock aficionados. Despite Crank being on the dull side as far as sets go, it had that unique style that made even those locations interesting and fun. Even with action as entertaining and ridiculous as that of Shoot 'Em Up, it doesn't make up for the lack of character in other departments.
Speaking of action: the action is dynamite and never lets up. Eighty minutes of wall-to-wall shooting action is a rarity and a treat and Shoot 'Em Up does it with flair. Clive Owen jumps, slides, and rolls around in an obvious homage to John Woo. There's a shootout while he has sex with Donna, a playground sequence where he shoots a roundabout, and even a skydiving battle complete with awful green screen and CG effects. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the action is entirely memorable or brutal, there's enough of it and it's just stupid enough that it keeps you glued.
The main selling point of Shoot 'Em Up in my opinion is Paul Giamatti's absolutely brilliant performance. He plays one of the most memorable villains in action cinema history, a hilarious, weird, and completely uncouth baddie who says nursery rhymes, tries to decide what birthday card to give to his child during an action scene, molests a corpse, delivers the best lines of the film ("Guns don't kill people
but they sure help!"), all with this cartoonish tinge to his acting that you just have to see to understand. If Giamatti wasn't in this film, it would probably never have found a following. It's a rare case where a single actor carries a movie.
That leaves the movie with a real crisis. On one hand, I love it for Giamatti and the Looney Tunes-esque violence. On the other, it's an ugly film with little real personality outside of the intentional silliness. To me, it's a good time despite the issues. It's short, fast, and delivers where you want it to. It's a reliable choice for an action fix.