Dir: Michael Davis. US. 2007. 87mins.
Merrily amoral, shamelessly watchable and outlandishly funny, Shoot 'Em Up is not for all tastes, but those with a dark sense of humour and a penchant for knowingly excessive violence will have a ball. Short enough so that its thin premise doesn't run out of steam, this tongue-in-cheek action-comedy thriller both lampoons gratuitous action movies while offering sufficiently exciting (and gratuitous) set pieces in its own right.

New Line will certainly sell Shoot 'Em Up, which opens September 7 in the US, to the same comic-book/action crowds that sampled 2005's Sin City and this winter's Smokin' Aces. While New Line would love to get close to Sin City's $74m domestic tally, Shoot 'Em Up lacks that film's star power and source-material recognition. (Though Shoot's Clive Owen also appeared in that film, he was not one of the most prominent names in the picture.) With neither Owen nor Paul Giamatti bankable action commodities, Shoot may end up closer to Smokin' Aces' $36m American haul or even Grindhouse's disappointing $25m figure.

The film will expand into foreign markets starting in mid-September, where co-star Monica Bellucci may prove to be the strongest international draw. The unrelenting action will entice young men of any nationality, but it will probably prove difficult to interest women in such macho silliness. Shoot 'Em Up seems poised to be a beloved cult item, though, practically guaranteeing healthy ancillaries down the line.

Angry loner Smith (Clive Owen) must care for a defenceless newborn boy after his mother's murder by a gang of goons run by the arrogant, intellectual Hertz (Paul Giamatti). Hertz wants to kill the baby as well, which forces Smith to team up with DQ (Monica Bellucci), a sympathetic prostitute, to protect the child and determine why this baby's fate is so important to Hertz.

Working from his original script, director Michael Davis has crafted Shoot 'Em Up as if it was actually based on an ultra-violent graphic novel. With its grungy noir look, copious gun play, hard-boiled characters, and explicit bloodshed, the film could have sprung from the imagination of Frank Miller, the comic-book writer of Sin City and 300. But while Davis has clearly been influenced by comics, as well as the films of Quentin Tarantino and others, he manages to concoct a unique, pungent variation on these conventions, producing a film that is both exciting and frequently very funny without resorting to camp or jokey excess.

Because Shoot 'Em Up proceeds like a live-action graphic novel, with characters talking in exaggerated tough-guy dialogue and performing physical feats that would land a mere mortal in the morgue, the performances require a certain gravity and self-assurance to anchor the film's overridingly outrageous tone. Owen and Giamatti do terrific work in this regard. Though their characters are meant to be larger-than-life versions of a noir hero and villain, neither actor approaches his role with any condescension or showboating.

Owen has played similar cool customers in movies as diverse as Croupier, Sin City and Children Of Men, but the role of the unflappable Smith requires a light touch to go along with all the steely-eyed stares. And Giamatti, whose breakthrough role was playing the noxious nemesis of Howard Stern in Private Parts, deftly balances Hertz's smug superiority, twitching ferocity, and building frustration as Smith continues to elude his grasp.

Though these cardboard characters don't require as much from these men as their more celebrated 'serious' roles do, it's impressive how authoritatively they embody these archetypes.

Bellucci, unfortunately, doesn't fare nearly as well as her male counterparts, partly because Davis hasn't bothered to imagine her as anything other than as a sexual plaything for Smith. But beyond that, Bellucci simply seems uncomfortable with the film's self-mocking style, rendering her hard-hearted whore character without much pizzazz.

Though sure to offend some, Davis also reveals a wicked streak by wringing hearty laughs out of potentially inappropriate situations, such as sex scenes that turn into shootouts in mid-thrust and daring escapes in which Smith must blast his way out of trouble while precariously carrying the infant. Done poorly, such cheeky irreverence would seem cruel or sleazy, but Shoot 'Em Up, for all its hints of menace, is such a gleefully good-spirited time that its rampant violence never feels like overkill.

Shoot 'Em Up gets most of its ammunition from its myriad action sequences, which are maniacally over-the-top in a way that provokes laughter because of their intentional absurdity but also elicits genuine thrills because of their sharp execution. Since it would be unfair to ruin the surprises in store, suffice it to say that eager audience members will discover new ways to kill people with such unconventional weapons as carrots and parachutes. In fact, the film's narrative occasionally seems to whiz by important story beats just so that Davis can get to his next ingenious set piece.

Production companies/backers
Montford/Murphy Productions

US distribution
New Line Cinema

International distribution
New Line Cinema

Susan Montford
Don Murphy
Rick Benattar

Executive producers
Douglas Curtis
Toby Emmerich
Cale Boyter

Associate Producer
Jeff Katz

Michael Davis

Peter Pau

Production design
Gary Frutkoff

Peter Amundson

Paul Haslinger

Main cast
Clive Owen
Paul Giamatti
Monica Bellucci
Stephen McHattie
Greg Bryk