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Arts & Culture

Shoot 'Em Up/Interviews with Michael Davis and Clive Owen

Davis confessed to being obsessed with James Bond, even going so far as to write his own Bond novels as a kid. Davis, who looks more like Paul Giamatti than Clive Owen, created the script for Shoot 'Em Up so that he could live out his action fantasies. He arrives just in time to give American action films a shot of adrenaline.

If you compare action movies to sex then most American action films are stuck in the missionary position, performing their duties with diligence but not much inspiration. Meanwhile, Asian action films are exploring the Kama Sutra of action film with reckless abandon. That's why Davis had this wild idea to make a kick-ass American actioner with an Asian flair. But since his credits only included scripts for silly comedies he decided to give his pitch to the studio a little oomph.

"I basically took every one of the action scenes and shot for shot hand drew them myself," Davis says during an interview at Comic-Con, "Ten drawings per second. It was fifteen minutes of animation. It's like you're watching the movie but drawn. It was 17,000 drawings so it showed a work ethic. If I was willing to do this much work to prep then I must be organized on the set and capable of directing."

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"I saw his animated pitch," says actor Clive Owen, "which was very witty. But in this animated picture it says: 'This is John Woo's wet dream.' It's one thing writing that but pulling it off? I mean John Woo does happen to be a master of the genre."

Owen read Davis' script, which he says, "was the freshest, wildest, funniest thing I'd read in years." So Owen took the part of the mysterious Mr. Smith. Owen describes the character as "the classic man with no name. The only thing that's important is that when the sh-t hits the fan, he's gonna deliver."

And baby makes three... Shoot 'Em Up (New Line)

Smith assumes responsibility for seeing a newborn infant to safety after he tries to save the mother from a bunch of hit men. She dies, the baby survives, and Smith enlists the help of a lactating prostitute (the luscious Monica Belluci who has the same European mix of maturity and sensuality as Jeanne Moreau). Now the thugs are after her as well. Supervising the army of goons is Hertz (a hilarious Paul Giamatti), a pudgy man who looks more like an accountant than a killer. He's henpecked and keeps getting interrupted by calls from his nagging wife.

Davis sums up the characters like this: "Monica's the emotion, Owens is the cool calm, and Giamatti is the comic relief."

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But Giamatti's Hertz sums up the film's driving mantra: "Violence is one of the most fun things to watch."

When it's done with the right flair. Owen says, "the film establishes from the get-go the fact that its not operating in the real world. I mean if you kill someone with a carrot, reality goes on the back burner."

"Somebody said to me, 'Are you concerned about the violence in the movie?'" Owen recalls, "And I'm like no. It's the best kind of violence, it's crazy movie violence. It's nothing to do with my real life and it's very satisfying because of that, very cool and satisfying."

And that's why you can get an adrenaline rush out of Shoot 'Em Up . The film restores my faith in the ability of American movies to do action right. Smith doesn't just kill the bad guys; he does so with panache and innovation. Davis even combines sex and a gunfight to give new meaning to the notion of a bang-bang shoot em up.

Not since The Matrix has an American movie embraced the Asian action aesthetic with so much glee. For Shoot 'Em Up , Davis turned specifically to John Woo's Hard-Boiled.

"The thing that I took away from it," says Davis, "is I liked the sort of balletic, acrobatic jumping around action. The character flying, he's not super human, but I think everyone loves seeing somebody in the cinema in the air sort of like a human bullet. I also felt like American action movies didn't have as high a body count. The Asian movies were okay to say look this is a fantasy, this is a wish fulfillment, so let's make it more so. I also see in an American movie that they go bang-bang-bang-muzzle flash, and then somebody goes bang-bang-bang-muzzle flash but there's no action-reaction. I always feel theres something more satisfying in bang-somebody falls. It just feels better when somebody gets hits and thats what they do in the Asian movies. So I said I'm going to give myself license to be more like the Asian moves and John Woo."

Did I fire 6 shots or only 5... Shoot 'Em Up (New Line)

Finally an American director gets it. He understands that everything has to be at play in an action scenethe actors, the props, the location. Davis rigs his action scenes like intricate and deliciously clever Rube Goldberg devices that are a delight to see play out.

And if you're an Asian action fan you can identify the references. The birth scene recalls a delivery in Time and Tide. That film also has some stair and wire work that resemble the stunts in Davis' film. Smith running around with the baby is directly from Hard-Boiled and Chow Yun Fat's character. And some of the shooting and sliding looks very similar to Woo's A Better Tomorrow. But Davis pays homage to these films with the right mix of respect and innovation. It doesn't hurt that he has ace Hong Kong new wave cinematographer Peter Pau who actually worked with Woo on films such as The Killer.

As an action film junkie I have to confess that there's nothing like the rush you get from a great action sequence. It uses everything the medium has to offer -- sound, music, movement, effects, editing, choreography. And when it's done right your jaw should drop down in awe. Davis' film may lack the elegance, physical grace, and emotional resonance of a John Woo actioner but it delivers a brutal, wildly kinetic, and deliriously over the top Americanized version of it. And there's just enough witty character detail to make us care about what happens.

The film also recalls the Coens' Raising Arizona in the way it keeps the infant safe no matter how absurd the danger. Contrary to the conventional wisdom to never act with babies, Owen loved the experience: "The babies were great. Obviously for danger reasons you cant put those babies [twins were used] in all those situations. But I wish there were more of the real babies in there only because when we used the babies in the action it was really centering physically. You change because there's a little precious thing there and it just affects the way you do the scene. If you're not using a real baby then it's very easy to forget that's what the film's about."

Not all films have to be deep and enlightening, filling you up like a good meal. Shoot 'Em Up (rated R for language, extreme violence and sexual content) is like a shot of tequila, not very nutritious but dang satisfying if you're in the mood. Plus the film will give you a new appreciation for carrots.

Companion viewing: Hard-Boiled, Time and Tide, Raising Arizona, A Better Tomorrow, Kung Fu Hustle