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‘Shoot ’Em Up’ has holes in its brain

Action extravaganza can’t live up to its ambitions of being totally outrageous and having the audience also care about the characters. By Alonso Duralde

From Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon” all the way up to “The Matrix” and “Run Lola Run,” there have always been filmmakers for whom physics and logic were, at best, quaint concepts.

In making movies like these, the idea goes something like this: 1) We moviemakers can bend time and space to our will. 2) What if the characters in the movie knew that too and behaved accordingly?

The results can often be giddily entertaining, so long as the directors in question remember the all-important: 3) Once you have turned your characters into cartoons, you can’t change your mind and make them into three-dimensional human beings.

Which brings us to “Shoot ’Em Up,” a movie that wants desperately to have it both ways. The film begins with an extreme close-up of Clive Owen’s face while he eats a carrot; within minutes, he will be using that carrot to kill a man, which lets you know immediately that we’re in the hyper-violent cloud-cuckoo-land of someone who’s watched a lot of Hong Kong action pictures. And that’s fine: Writer-director Michael Davis is clearly having a great time giving us Owen as a super-human badass who can take out a squad of gun-toting goons while simultaneously helping a fugitive pregnant woman give birth. And while he’d rather not get stuck carting the newborn baby around, the murderous attentions of villain Paul Giamatti force him to do so.

If the whole movie were about Owen (and Monica Bellucci, as a lactating prostitute doing double-duty as romantic lead and wet nurse) keeping the baby out of the clutches of Giamatti and his seemingly bottomless well of hired gunsels, “Shoot ’Em Up” would live up to its title as a reasonably entertaining, over-the-top action picture with an unfortunate propensity of explaning its own jokes.

(Owen constantly chews carrots and stays one step ahead of Giamatti, which is a funny hat-tip to Bugs Bunny. Giamatti then refers to Owen as a “wascally wabbit,” which kills the gag. Owen adds “What’s up, doc?” which crushes the joke into a fine powder and sprinkles it on Mel Blanc’s grave.)

But no, halfway into “Shoot ’Em Up,” we’re expected to care not only about the plot — some MacGuffin about a gun manufacturer and a baby factory for bone marrow transplants — but also about the “characters,” such as they are. So it’s not enough for Owen to slide down a rope with a machine gun, spinning in a circle and taking out henchmen on various floors of a building — now we’re supposed to care about his dead wife and child? Say what you will about Bug Bunny, at least he never needed a backstory.

Of the performers, only Giamatti seems to fully sink his teeth into the utter ridiculousness of the film. Owen coasts on attitude, perhaps realizing that audiences everywhere will be thinking, “You were too good for 007, but you’re starring in this?” Poor Bellucci, saddled with a thankless and borderline-offensive role, seems to be this year’s poster girl for the “this is what they do to talented European actresses in Hollywood” foundation. She needs to hightail it back to France, stat, where even playing a stewardess in a remake of “A Trip to the Moon” would be a step up.