I remember when the intro clips they showed at movie theaters used to be cool. You’d be flying through space and there’s a Coke formation up ahead but all of a sudden popcorn starts exploding all around you and then they thank you for not smoking. Nowadays, the theater conglomerate that currently monopolizes Marin is called CineMark, and for some reason they’ve chosen to start every movie with a trip to the concession stand with a couple of furries. Their mascot, who has the vaguely dirty-sounding but I can’t explain why exactly name of “Joe Front Row” does a Busby Berkeley dance with a bunch of generic candy and his ballgown-wearing girlfriend. I’m convinced there’s some kind of subliminal messaging going on, because by the time the movie starts, I’m always overcome with the urge to buy some popcorn and screw a cat.
I’m 0 for 2 in my attempts to see a good, stupid summer movie over the past two weeks. Last weekend I got invited after work to go see Balls of Fury. Tonight, a sudden power outage at the office left me with no option but to see Shoot ‘Em Up.
If the ads for concessions weren’t confusing enough, the choice of trailers is almost as baffling. The trailers before Shoot ‘Em Up, a gun-heavy action comedy aimed at post-adolescent males, were: a Sean Penn movie about some guy in his 20’s discovering himself by becoming a hobo (sure, fine); Hitman (obviously); a horror movie about vampires in Alaska (I see where you’re going with this); a movie where Stiffler’s mom is played by Susan Sarandon (all right); and The Jane Austen Book Club (…the hell?)
Before Balls of Fury, there were ads for all the latest attempts at comedies, including The Comebacks. Anybody who thought that the double-whammy of White Chicks and Little Man finally put an end to the Wayans, not so fast: they opened Pandora’s box with Scary Movie, and we’re going to be feeling the after-effects for decades to come. You can see why Hollywood would be attracted to these parody movies, since they let you save the expense of hiring comedy writers. The Comebacks claims to be a parody of those schmaltzy Disney underdog sports movies, which sounds like a reasonably clever idea, except the trailer has a lot of footage where they’re parodying Dodgeball. Which was itself a parody of underdog sports movies. How much more can you scrape the bottom of the barrel and still be inside the barrel? Isn’t that a little like releasing a parody of a Leslie Nielsen movie?
So why have I been going on about the trailers, instead of talking about the movies themselves? Well, because there’s not much to say. I went into each having lowered my expectations as far as they could go while still looking forward to the movie, and they still managed to disappoint. Each time, I was hoping for a fun, stupid comedy, and each time they only managed one out of three.
Balls of Fury is the easier target, since it aims so low and misses. I’ve seen a lot of movies where all the good bits are in the trailer. This one is remarkable because they managed to take everything that was funny in the trailer, and then render it unfunny in the actual movie. I’ve read reviews that call it offensive, but it’s not. It’s just kind of lazy. It feels like they took a concept with a lot of potential (even the most soulless person has to admit that an Enter the Dragon / Bloodsport parody based around ping pong sounds like a can’t-fail idea), got together a bunch of funny people to make cameos, then started filming without realizing they’d neglected to write any funny material. It’s like they wrote the screenplay in Microsoft Word using “BLIND MAN WALKS INTO POLE” as a macro for “INSERT JOKE HERE”, then forgot to do a search-and-replace. “Oh well, Christopher Walken in a geisha wig will patch over the weak spots,” is all well and good, but the guy can only do so much.
Shoot ’em Up is basically what you should expect from a movie called Shoot ’em Up. Emphasis on should expect. I expected an over-the-top action comedy with actors chewing scenery and big, ridiculous shoot-out sequences — a movie every bit as ridiculous as John Woo’s Hong Kong movies, but which didn’t take itself at all seriously.
What I should have expected was a movie made by people who aren’t clever enough to come up with a better title than Shoot ’em Up. It’s a deadpan riff on Hong Kong shoot-out movies with over-the-top action scenes, a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner cartoon done in the style of Quentin Tarantino, but without Tarantino’s subtlety or nuanced dialogue.
That’s right, I said without the subtlety of Quentin Tarantino. I’m as stunned as anyone else; I always thought the appeal of Tarantino was the same as that of listening to a really imaginative, hyperactive 15-year-old who’d been raised on B-movies and TV shows describing the most boss fight scenes ever. It’s a hell of a lot of fun mostly because there’s just no sense of restraint or self-censoring.
Before seeing Shoot ’em Up, I never fully appreciated what goes into Tarantino’s movies — it’s actually very risky to go as balls-out as he does, because when you get it wrong, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. I would’ve welcomed any of the interminable dialogue scenes in Death Proof if it meant I didn’t have to hear another unforgivably, suck-the-air-out-of-the-room unfunny attempt at a one-liner or the “ain’t BMW drivers annoying?” moments in Shoot ’em Up. This movie feels like it was made by the type of guy who’s watching Kill Bill, and needs to lean over to his buddy and say, “Did you see that? She’s driving a car called the Pussy Wagon! Get it?”
The action scenes are decent, and there are a couple of genuinely clever* moments. Almost all of them are in the first 10 minutes, though. And the cast are good but all feel like they’re slumming. I’d think that Clive Owen was parodying his performances in Children of Men and those BMW ads, except that even that obvious a parody feels too subtle for this movie. The unintelligible Monica Bellucci seems wasted, and she was in The Matrix movies. It even seems like a low point for Paul Giamatti, and he was in that movie with the Nickelodeon stars where he gets dyed blue.
I think I’ve about given up on movies that are trying to be bad, because they’re so good at it.
* “Clever” in this context means (spoilers): killing a guy with a carrot, and delivering a baby by shooting through the umbilical cord.