The Reeler


September 6, 2007

Shoot-ing to Kill

Ex-hack Davis makes the most of Owen, Giamatti and a torrent of lead

Carrot-juiced: Clive Owen with his organic weapon of choice in Shoot 'Em Up (Photo: New Line)

Who knew carrots could inflict such damage? Logistical questions run counter to the universe of Shoot 'Em Up (opening Friday in New York), a genuine action comedy with its action rooted in comedy and comedy defined by action. In fine form as a sleek protagonist, Clive Owen plays a vigilante named Mr. Smith, ferociously intent on protecting an infant from hordes of anonymous baddies led by the lunatic Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti). Smith is a furious creature bound to the rules of savage entertainment: He fires bullets from his fingertips, engages in firefights during freefall miles above ground and, in memorable homage to a certain elusive rabbit, offs villains with the aforementioned veggie. Let's see 007 try that.

Indeed, while Shoot 'Em Up never rises above the conceptual levity of a depraved Looney Tunes episode (apart from Owen and his carrots, Giamatti's outrageous vehemence in the face of ongoing defeat has much in common with Yosemite Sam), there's a method behind the absurdity, a uniting force emanating straight from the director's chair. Michael Davis, whose film-school education unfolded in the mid-1980s alongside USC classmates Bryan Singer and Jay Roach, spent the last decade locked in an industrial quagmire, helming a handful of passable independent comedies despite his interest in the action genre. The mediocre 1997 teenage rom-com Eight Days a Week (which co-starred future Waitress Keri Russell) lead to the forgettable (and virtually interchangeable) productions 100 Girls and Girl Fever. His most recent movie, Monster Man, a neglected exploitation flick about a psychotic truck driver (hard to find, but you can track it down on Amazon), comes across as a sloppy ADD riff on Steven Spielberg's Duel.

"Everybody feels like there's this freedom of choice in Hollywood," Davis told The Reeler at a recent New York press junket, looking like a portly Spielberg and emboldening every statement with dramatic intonation. "Ninety-nine percent of the movies people direct are jobs."

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Despite his whirlwind of quickies, Davis held tight to his ambition. Drawing from his experience as a storyboard artist, he used iMovie to compose a series of sketchbook animations that would become the backbone of Shoot 'Em Up. "That's what turned the tides," recalled co-producer Don Murphy, who was two years Davis' senior at USC. The director brought his script to Murphy and the film's other producers after completing the animated outline. The innovative pitch ultimately helped sell the project to New Line. Reflecting on the resulting inaugural experience with a big studio budget, Davis insisted, "My philosophy is, imagination is always better than money."

Knock on wood -- or shoot it up. According to Davis, online buzz responding kindly to the idea of Owen taking the lead role helped prove to the actor that it was worth his time. "I think I sold Clive on my work ethic," he said, noting that the actor chose the role shortly after his Oscar nomination for Closer. "Here I am, this guy who had just done these little, indie, million-dollar movies, and he picked me."

Owen noted the director's singular vision. "Michael is action-obsessed," he said. "He loves action movies. He studies all the big sequences. His theory is that it works better if you see the guy doing it, because it makes you feel like you're the guy doing it. If you keep going wide, stepping away from it, you don't feel like you're in the thick of it."

Director Michael Davis on the set of Shoot 'Em Up with stars Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci

Frequently the center of a story's coarse masculinity (his female companion, blankly played by Monica Bellucci, is a helpless Italian prostitute), Owen admitted that the project gave him a chance to broaden his range. "It's said a lot -- often by people that I work with -- that I should do a comedy," he said. "But Shoot 'Em Up is a bit of a comedy."

Even viewed from that angle, the role defies modern expectations. Recalling slapstick of the Chaplin-Keaton variety, there's little more to his character than what we see onscreen. He's "the angriest man in the world," according to Davis, but save for the off-screen death of his wife and child (during a fast food restaurant shooting, natch), Smith primarily serves as a representation of sheer force in opposition to absolute villainy, played with equally exacting zaniness by Giamatti.

Sporting a goofy beard and spouting esoteric vulgarities ("Well, fuck me sideways!"), Giamatti's dyspeptic monstrosity heads an operation to breed children for their bone marrow. Or something like that -- he looks just as confused about it as you do. "When I talked to the director, the whole thing seemed like it was over-the top and tongue in cheek," Giamatti said. "It took him a long time to get it made, so he was really excited. But he was meticulous. He had the whole thing worked out in insane detail. Nice guy, too."

Well into his forties, Davis was prepared to drop his irksome career for a teaching gig in South Carolina. Today he radiates with the nascent delight of an adolescent film geek on the brink of fame. "I would love to stay in this action arena. I would love to have the opportunity to have people [say], 'That's the Michael Davis style of an action movie,'" he said, noting that he had completed another outlandish action script that "could be Shoot 'Em Up 2 if I made a few alterations."

It's too soon to predict whether Davis' renewed motivation will carry him on a successful trajectory through the harebrained realm of blockbuster spectacles, although his preferred contemporaries indicate an interest in methodical action filmmaking that toys with the form rather than empty thrills. He claimed to enjoy the jittery documentary aspects of Paul Greengrass' Bourne movies and the expressionism of Zack Snyder's 300, but rejected the notion that his vision is primarily referential. "I had a lot less money than those guys!" he exclaimed, his eyes sparkling with either genius or naiveté. Right now, it's anybody's guess.

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