Shoot or Be Shot is a pretty obscure low-budget 2002 movie starring William Shatner alongside a host of lesser-known actors including Harry Hamlin and Scott Rinker. The film was co-written and directed by the similarly lesser-known J. Randall Argue. Despite attempts to generate publicity at the time of its limited theatrical release, the movie soon disappeared almost without a trace.
Harvey Wilkes (Shatner) has spent his whole professional life writing technical manuals. But what he really dreams of is becoming a screenwriter.
The problem is, he is in a mental institution and his parole board doesn't share Wilkes' enthusiasm for his new-found calling. So Wilkes escapes, with a screenplay he has written in hand. Someone will help him make his movie!
Meanwhile, a bunch of LA movie-making wannabes are also struggling to find success. Specifically, producer Jack Yeager (Hamlin), actress Heidi (Julianne Christie), director Ben Steinman (Rinker) and several other characters.
When Yeager's assistant/cleaning-lady berates the producer for making nothing but shallow and titillating action movies, an epiphany ensues. A new film will be made - one more risky and artistic.
And this will be no ordinary endeavor. There will be no script and instead, it will be filmed utilizing the "aleatoric" technique - meaning, whatever happens, happens.
So off to the (cheap) desert they go to film (with Heidi disguised as an Irish actress to avoid being recognized by Yeager, her ex-boyfriend).
But it isn't long before Wilkes shows up and, at gunpoint, forces the cast and crew to make his film instead! Mayhem ensues!!!
And that's where we'll leave the plot.
So, what to make of all this? There's really only one way to describe this movie: thoroughly and completely mediocre. The writing, acting, directing, musical scoring - all are decidedly average and no more. It's as if the makers of Shoot or Be Shot calculated that the safest possible mainstream road, namely one of risk-free mediocrity, was the one that leads most directly to potential box-office gold. Ooops. Didn't work out that way. Not one bit.
There's nothing egregiously wrong with any of the core components of this movie (this isn't some film-school project that only the film-makers seem to understand, nor is it technically flawed), but there just isn't anything spectacularly right or interesting about it either.
It's all frustratingly average. For example, the acting isn't poor, but neither do any of the casting choices scream anything other than ordinary. The actors, mostly bland-seeming twenty-thirtysomethings, come across as actors; the characters they inhabit remain... guess what word we feel compelled to overuse? - mediocre!
It's all just stuff that happens, with director J. Randal Argue failing abysmally to make us in any way care about any of it.
Even Bill Shatner's performance is pretty you-know-what. He underplays the role (though not in a cold, clinical way, just in an average way), which means that his character lacks anything like the sort of multi-dimensional, over-caffeinated insanity found in roles like 1973's Impulse. Evidently that's what the director wanted, and the result is pretty you-know-what.
But the main problems lie with the decidedly average script. Most frustrating is that there in no real depth to Bill Shatner's insanity. He's just insane and that's it. The one fascinating clue the audience may have had to work with, the character's script, is something - and this is almost criminal - we never actually get to see. Indeed, it isn't until halfway through the movie that the onscreen filmmakers begin their shoot. And it isn't until almost the end of the movie that the filming of Wilkes' script begins. And even then, the audience ends up being deprived of watching the performers act out whatever this escaped mental patient has put on paper.
Shouldn't that be the focal point of the movie? Wouldn't that be fun to see? Well, not in this film, unfortunately. A gunfight takes place before the audience is able to gain this potentially valuable and entertaining insight into the character.
The one single potentially truly funny and interesting moment in the movie perfectly illustrates the filmmakers' repeatedly bland judgement. Wilkes has found a seemingly dead woman on the road. Will he rape a corpse?
The comedic timing is way off and the moment is truncated rather than extended for laughs. Which leads inevitably to the question: how the hell can you have a low budget movie and take fewer risks than with a $100 million movie? Truly bizarre. It's like a video version of Seeking Major Tom!
Instead of laughs, the script is stuffed full of rather inappropriate, self-referential and self-conscious "film-schooly" references to narrative structure and the like. Who cares! Even the opening credits have that banal I-want-to-be-Tarantino look to them:
There's a review of this movie on Quipster.com where it's misstated that Shoot or Be Shot was recorded on video. Not so. This is a proper feature film, shot on celluloid, with a decent sized crew and everything. But given the lack of creativity on display, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Where the fourth wall really comes crashing down to the point of treating the audience like a bunch of dummies is in the fictional movie being shot on screen. Cheap video cameras, well away from their subjects, no microphones, no re-takes. Yet somehow at the end, they've managed to create a successful, properly produced and edited movie (multiple angles, multiple takes, clear sound, slow-motion). It makes no f*#@ing sense...
...in fact, since the movie-makers evidently couldn't be bothered to introduce even the barest sense of internal of logic into this important aspect of movie, it's time to stop being bothered to continue with this review. There is no genial highly clever "Hah, that's the point" going on here; no witty playing around with audience expectations or anything like that. Just tedium...
Watch Steve Martin's last classic film Bowfinger instead: similar idea, far, far better execution (or this move).
Now, let's move swiftly to the hair...
One of the most striking things about watching Shoot or Be Shot in 2011 is the realization that the "Denny Katz" toupee has now been with us for more than a decade. The toup hasn't changed much and, bar some shortening and rounding, nor has Bill Shatner!
As for moments of toupological interest (MTI), there are a few. As Wilkes' character heads into the desert, we get an interesting, almost regal silhouette of the toupee:
And later on, as Wilkes forces the crew to ride onwards into the night in their caravan, a fight breaks out between him and young director Ben. Not only do we get an interesting shot of the sides of the temple (where the toup extends down)...
...but also we learn that Wilkes has developed a disdain for Ben's minimalistic levels of facial hair, telling Heidi (whose former relationship with Jack has been exposed; current boyfriend Ben is not happy) "You know, if I were Mister Look-at-my-cool-bohemian-hair-lip - and thank God I'm not - I'd have trouble forgiving you..."
So did Bill Shatner request these moments in order to add spice to the movie or to add another piece to that life-long toupological puzzle that is "The Shatner Code"? Or did the producers ask him? Did they know? Was it an accident? At least this hair issue on the part of Wilkes gives the character some subtext, but the toupee can only go so far in saving a movie like this...
Shoot or Be Shot is available on DVD. A thoroughly neutral experience.