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Hits and misses aplenty in clever and sleazy 'Shoot 'Em Up'

Paul Giamatti (left) plays a hit man and Clive Owen is a mysterious stranger out to protect a motherless newborn in Michael Davis's over-the-top action movie. Paul Giamatti (left) plays a hit man and Clive Owen is a mysterious stranger out to protect a motherless newborn in Michael Davis's over-the-top action movie. (james dittiger/new line cinema via ap)

The gleefully sleazy new action movie "Shoot 'Em Up" pits a mysterious Man With No Name against a sadistic hit man, and I'm guessing about three-quarters of the budget went to ammunition. Really, though, this is a battle of acting schools. In one corner we have Clive Owen as the glowering hero, barely twitching a facial muscle while the bodies stack up like cordwood. In the other corner is Paul Giamatti as the deadly nerd villain, chewing on the scenery as though it represented his first meal in months.

Who wins? It's a genre piece, so you can probably guess. In practice, though, "Shoot 'Em Up" is a disreputable but rakishly enjoyable Mexican standoff in which hambone and cold fish fight each other to a draw. Absolutely not for feminists, lovers of period films, and anyone whose sensibilities are bruised by over-the-top stuntwork, it's a cocktail made up of three parts testosterone to one part brains.

Writer-director Michael Davis wastes no time gunning the engine into the red. We see a carrot-munching Owen waiting for a bus in a lousy section of town, and then a terrified pregnant woman (Ramona Pringle) is running by him, fleeing a mob of gunmen. The hero decides to intervene; within minutes two dozen men are lying in pools of blood. Only then do the opening credits roll.

The woman gives birth, then gets dead, leaving Owen's character - he's eventually called Mr. Smith, but even that's a placeholder - in charge of the newborn. This is a gag in itself: the sad-eyed killing machine as Mr. Mom, shooting off an umbilical cord with a gun. Needing to feed the baby, he does the obvious: He finds a lactating hooker named DQ, played by the Italian arthouse sexpot Monica Bellucci. I'm not sure they cover this in "What to Expect When You're Expecting." Maybe in the next edition.

Leading the hordes of black-clad assassins is Mr. Hertz (Giamatti), a sarcastic middle-management type with serious anger issues. Hertz is always being interrupted mid-hit by his wife calling on the cellphone; there are a few har-de-har locker-room jokes about the old ball and chain that are funny once and then just dumb. In general, "Shoot 'Em Up" is never quite as witty as it thinks it is, at least when the characters open their mouths.

When they're shooting, though - or leaping or driving or stabbing each other in the neck with carrots - it's another matter entirely. Davis seems to have taken the film as a personal challenge to create action sequences that are faster, higher, crazier than any seen before. Mr. Smith doesn't share Bugs Bunny's taste in vegetables for nothing; a sizable chunk of the movie's DNA comes straight from a Warner Brothers cartoon.

For instance: The baby lies on a playground merry-go-round, with Smith several yards away when the killers appear; he uses bullets to get the kid spinning out of easy-target range. Later, Smith blows away eight or so gunmen while simultaneously having sex with DQ. The film climaxes (if you will) with a shoot-out in free-fall thousands of feet above the earth; the scene plays like 3D chess with bullets.

Why does everyone want the baby dead? There's an explanation that involves a presidential candidate (Daniel Pilon), a fascist gun manufacturer (Stephen McHattie), bone marrow, and surrogate mothers, and if you buy any of that, I know an online businessman in Nigeria who has a deal for you.

No, "Shoot 'Em Up" exists for its crunching ballet of flailing bodies and spinning cars, for its ghoulish black humor, and for its hopped-up, boys-only party vibe. If the Maxim audience didn't already exist, this movie would single-handedly invent it.

By now, you already know whether this is a movie you need to see or drive several miles out of your way to avoid. Even if you're in the latter camp, it's worth noting that Owen gives off fumes of class - he can't help it, really - and Giamatti has a highly entertaining time slumming it. Filmmaker Davis isn't quite in the same league, though, at least not yet. "Shoot 'Em Up" is extremely clever without actually being smart. It's the Coen Brothers for Dummies.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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Shoot 'Em Up

Written and directed by: Michael Davis

Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Boston, and suburbs

Running time: 86 minutes

Rated: R (pervasive strong bloody violence, sexuality, some language)

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