He returned to that persona in "Closer" and "Children of Men," but is at his most acidly misanthropic in "Shoot 'Em Up" as the mysterious Mr. Smith.
Smith is minding his own business at a bus stop when he watches an armed thug chase a pregnant woman into a nearby alley, intending to kill her.
It's a funny actor's moment for Owen, who, with a few economical expressions, lets the audience know that he's dusting off (reluctantly) a neglected chivalry as he follows the commotion down the alley.
Later, after about 20 dead guys and an impromptu baby delivery during which "Dr." Smith severs the umbilical cord with a bullet, a chase movie is born.
It's Smith on the run through a generic Noir Town, pursued by a mob of assassins led by (of all people) Paul Giamatti, playing a foul-mouthed executioner. He's so determined to break out of a bookish-doormat casting rut that in one scene he sidles up to the corpse of a topless woman and . . . well, it has nothing to do with pinot noir.
Writer-director Michael Davis, trying to make the jump here from straight-to-video, stages the action with a Hong Kong action movie flair, but it's really Owen's ongoing mode of disgust that makes the movie feel like guilty fun.
It's during the first shoot 'em up, for instance, that we see Mr. Smith, amid a noisy hail of bullets, fixate on one male assailant's hairdo.
"Do you know what I hate?" Smith suddenly utters, to no one in particular. It's his signature line. In this particular instance, he hates ponytails, and so he gives the guy a .45 caliber haircut before sending him to the big barbershop in the sky.
It's the first in a long list of things Mr. Smith doesn't like - earrings on men, unkempt toenails, people who change lanes without signalling, able-bodied people who park in handicapped zones.
As the narrative grows disposable and ludicrous - something about bone marrow transplants, political conspiracies and hookers who specialize in breast milk - it's Smith's do-you-know-what-I-hate campaign of herd-culling that keeps the movie going.
He's like a Dirty Harry/Miss Manners hybrid set loose in a culture of fraying standards. The scene in which Smith punishes a coffee-slurper should win some kind of Outtake Academy Award.
I look forward to "Shoot 'Em Up 2" with Smith in a movie theater full of talkers, noisy eaters and cell phone abusers. *
Produced by Susan Montford, Don Murphy and Rick Benattar, written and directed by Michael Davis, music by Paul Haslinger, distributed by New Line Cinema.