At one point, this blue-eyed Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) actually chomps down on one of his very firm, very orange root vegetables and cracks, "What's up, Doc?" And then Giamatti's Mr. Hertz counters with a game "Oh, you're a wascally wabbit."
A hundred bodies may kerplunk to the ground, necrophilia and back-alley sex-for-hire get tended to, and the f-word ricochets around with the thwacking frequency of ammo fire, but Shoot 'Em Up really is just Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd. It's an R-rated, gravity-defying, live-action cartoon.
Davis, whose previous titles include dabbles in stalker horror, romantic comedy and even a kiddie flick, orchestrates a propulsive series of action set-pieces. From the get-go, things are wild: a close-up of Owen, looking worn and raggedy on a bus bench in the dead of night, and then a woman runs by, her stomach swollen, clearly in labor. And then a guy with a gun comes after her.
Owen's Mr. Smith doesn't want to be bothered, but he can't help himself. He goes down the alley, extracts the woman from her predicament, and then extracts the baby from the womb. All the while, bullets from Giamatti and his gang fly.
It takes a while to figure out why Hertz and his thugs want to exterminate the baby, but Smith does. He drops by a brothel to see if his dark-haired, dishy prostitute pal (Monica Belucci) will help him watch the newborn. And so this hooker with a thick Italian accent gets sucked into the mayhem. Of course, there's time for a love scene, but it's a love scene and a shootout - Owen and Belucci go at it, as a swarm of stunt guys break through windows and doors, guns ablazing. Smith returns fire, and returns to his lovemaking - simultaneously.
Owen maintains a terse, deadpan attitude throughout, even as his character seethes with contempt at the fools and hypocrites of the world. (One rant, about 40-year-old men who sport ponytails, is priceless.) Giamatti acquits himself with villainous glee, while the only thing lacking suppleness from Belucci is the awkward English of her line readings.
There's no point to all this, really, and Davis' "homages" can be pretty shameless. (The movie's central image - of a heroic gunman firing off rounds with one hand and sheltering a tiny infant with the other - is straight out of Woo's Hong Kong action masterpiece, Hard-Boiled.) But for sheer audacity and adrenaline-fueled carnage, Shoot 'Em Up hits its target pretty much dead on.
Shoot 'Em Up *** (out of four stars)
Written and directed by Michael Davis. With Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti and Monica Belucci. Distributed by New Line Cinema. Running time: 1 hour, 27 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, nudity, sex, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.