Now, I certainly "get" Shoot 'Em Up, a point that I want to make sure is completely clear. The problem is that "getting" a joke and finding it funny aren't necessarily the same thing. So I'm not a square, I'm just mirthless.

The joke, of course (and I can say "of course" because it's obvious to anyone who puts more than a second's thought to the title) is that this is a satire of the violent video games that have come in recent years to hold such powerful influence on a certain strain of violent action movies; and it is a satire of the violent movies that have been so influenced; and it is a satire of the violent movies that influenced those games, just for good measure. The line that divides parody from the thing being parodied is awfully thin, however, and Shoot 'Em Up spends a lot of time wavering on the wrong side of that line, but that's not really it's main problem.

I don't want to get ahead of myself, though. Here's the film: a man who for convenience we'll call by one of his aliases, Smith (Clive Owen) is sitting in a bad part of one of those undefined movie cities that whispers "Toronto" like a lover's sigh, when he sees a very pregnant woman running from a man with a very big gun. With just a moment of resignation, Smith follows the pair into a warehouse, shoots the man and ignites an action sequence, and 80 minutes later the action sequence ends and the credits start, although to be fair the credits are fairly action-packed themselves. Along the way there are cutscenes character moments where we get to meet the very bad Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who wants the (now-dead) woman's baby killed and the lactation-fetish hooker Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci) that Smith brings along as a wet-nurse.

Now, be honest: does the thought of 80 minutes of essentially non-stop action sound at least a little bit awesome? It's okay if it doesn't, but I'd be a liar if I tried to claim that I don't get a little fanboyish at the notion. And that's actually kind of bad. The point, I suppose, is to underline the basic absurdity of the James Bond/John McClane action hero mold through ludicrous overstatement: you think that one or two massive stunts is awesome, well, what about THIS MANY? Isn't this FUCKING CRAZY? And Clive Owen makes all of these JOKES! It makes NO SENSE! It's a SATIRE!!!! And that's all undone a little bit if we're actually watching because we're actually digging the action. Or maybe it's some post-modern wiggedy-wackiness that I'm too old and cranky to understand, whereby we laugh at and with the material at the same time. I mean, except for the "laughing" part, because the one-liners are pretty horrible, although deliberately so, of course. The satire just isn't that subtle.

Also not subtle: the cartoonish nature of the whole thing. As in: the first shot of the movie is Smith biting a carrot. As in: he has an endless supply of carrots. As in: Hertz calls him a wascally wabbit. This might be the most effective part of the satire: reducing the action tropes to cartoon slapstick. But like everything else in Shoot 'Em Up, it's overplayed.

I am reminded, perhaps inevitably, of last year's end-of-summer fling, Crank, also 87 minutes long, also reviewed on this blog on September 11. Which kind of creeps me out. Anyway, I mostly liked Crank, finding it to be delightfully mindless and well-staged, and most importantly, not crass. It too was a video-game pastiche, maybe even a more formally innovative one than Shoot 'Em Up, but it didn't clobber the viewer with its own cleverness, outside of the very opening and the very close. It just was. By contrast, Shoot 'Em Up, from the title down, is constantly, annoyingly anxious to make sure that we understand that it's a parody. Except when it's not.

The real problem with the film isn't that the satire is artless, or that the parody shades into antiparody. The real problem is that the 80 minutes of essentially non-stop action that sounds so ass-kick-tastic on paper are eventually wearying. It's easy to say that Crank or one of the Bourne films are "nonstop," but they've got nothing on this one: even the character moments are edited with a multiple-cuts-per-second ratatat and insistent pulsing score that keeps the audience from a moment's rest. Make no mistake, a lot of the individual scenes are tiny masterpieces of staging, and at least one is laugh-out-loud funny. But there are too many of them, and the tone keeps shifting from exciting to satiric 87 minutes, it wears you out. At two hours, it would probably induce a coma.

But fair is fair, and it does work in bits and pieces, and that is mostly due to Owen, who is literally the only living actor that could have carried this film off. He's naturally got that miraculous blend of sardonic British cool and hungover fatigue that nobody else has, and it is exactly right for this part. His delivery of the many corny puns that make up his character's dialogue is practically bearable. Which, given the material, is high praise indeed, I assure you.

Meanwhile, Giamatti doesn't embarrass himself, really. I presume he was in the film because he thought it would be fun, and it looks like he's having fun, all mustache-twirling villainy. But he's not a particularly good foil, both because he is completely out-cooled by Clive Owen, and because the clever supervillains of the James Bond mold are always at their best in the quiet moments, of which this film has none. Instead, Hertz mostly shouts variations on "army of killers, stop him!" and "he killed my army of killers? Who is this guy?" which is kind of beneath the actor's talents. A little bit.

It is important to note that Giamatti has one particularly memorable line: "Fuck me sideways!" he yells after one failure. If you understand why that actor saying that line is funny, then you are as clever as the screenwriters, and if you understand why it is not funny, then you have much better taste.