New Line // 1996 // 96 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // February 20th, 2003
You only get one shot at revenge
When Butch "Bullet" Stein gets out of jail after an eight-year stint, he faces an uphill battle to re-adjust into normal society. Living in a house with an alcoholic father, a distant mother, a mentally ill brother, and an artistically gifted but immature brother is emotionally trying. His gang buddies from his pre-prison days are constantly shadowing him, tempting him to get back into the racket. Jobs and money are hard to come by. And the lure of street crime and heroin is ever present. But when big time drug boss Tank discovers that Bullet is back on the streets, he vows to settle a cellblock vendetta. Tensions mount as brother is pitted against brother, friend against friend, all in the name of money, power, and revenge. Can Butch save his talented sibling, or is Ruby destined to misfire and explode, just like brother Bullet did?
Something very strange is going on here. Bullet is not so much an urban gang warfare flick or a drug thug battle royale than a totally bizarre character study of what has to be one of the most dysfunctional families in the history of the media, and that's including those Jerry Springer regulars who travel all the way from Backfat, Arkansas to expose their second cousin/spouse's superfluous nipples on television. Our main character, essayed in a kind of method man haze by actor turned boxer turned punch line Mickey Roarke is a heroin addicted ex-con who was once a promising high school baseball player with a shot at the big time. Instead, he took up residence in the big house for copping to a crime he was barely involved in. Eight years and one pet albino rat later, Bullet is now a do-rag wearing, star of David tattooed and proud to be Jewish thief who lusts after his overly groomed best friend like it's date night in Cellblock G, teaches lessons about the dangers of drugs to yuppie teenagers by making them strip, has a bad habit of stabbing Latino dope dealers in the eye, and is as impotent as a French diplomat at Berchtesgaden. And he absolutely loves Barry White's sexy soul music. He just can't get enough of his love, babe.
Not that the rest of his family are well adjusted cosmopolitans. Indeed, they make the Royal Tenenbaums look like members of the John Birch Society. Brother Carl is a shell-shocked Vietnam vet whose raging schizophrenia leads him to bark orders at invisible armies, contemplate top secret conspiracies, find pleasure in the notion of never changing his underwear, and love teaching little project children the proper way to slice a playmate's throat. And that's just when he's lucid. Add to this Ruby, the youngest son, who fancies himself another Picasso. Unfortunately, he chooses to express his artistic gift in a weird, guerilla painting style that sees him rappelling down the sides of buildings and crashing nightclub ladies rooms looking for concrete canvases. No wonder Dad's dinners consist of Hebrew innards stew and several dozen martinis. What makes Bullet obtuse (and incredibly inconsistent) is that none of these quirks are organic. You can hear and see the cogs turning in the screenwriter's head as he layers on eccentricity after oddity inside of idiosyncrasy in hopes of producing something three-dimensional. But instead of creating well-rounded, identifiable individuals, we get the literary equivalent of sideshow freaks, the kind of rejects who only exist in a depressed writer's 800-page first novel about the themes of incest and excessive juvenile masturbation. Bullet can't quite make up its mind if it wants to be a tense crime thriller, an exploration of mental illness, a study of family in freefall (call it Unordinary People), or a showcase for Mickey Roarke's post canvas naps plastic surgery.
Director Julian Temple should have known better. One of the most visually accomplished directors to come to prominence in the '80s (with credits such as Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy), Bullet is indeed a feast for the eye. There is a wonderful mix of gritty urban reality (the grubby gray bomb site chic of NYC) and glitzy new romantic glam slam (the nightclub where everyone hangs out look like sets from a Visage video). His actors are capable -- Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs) as Carl, Adrien Brody (Summer of Sam, The Pianist) as Ruby -- but they are given so many distinctive mannerisms and character traits that they, at times, seem lost in their own attempts to simultaneously remember them all and act. Even the usually enigmatic Tupac Shakur (in what is little more than a cameo) fails to register. With his traveling limousine lifestyle, puffy beret, and ridiculous eye patch, he's more like a glamorous ghetto pirate than a neighborhood crime boss. But much of the fault lies at the mumbling mug of Mr. Roarke. With a writing credit on the film, you'd think he'd give himself better lines to spout than such wonderful witticisms as "in life, we're just around long enough for a cup of coffee" and "Ma, I love ya, but, ya know...I know..." You keep waiting for Marlon Brando to show up and ask about the errand boys who were sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill. All this abnormality turns Bullet into a campy car wreck of a film, something that is eminently watchable and occasionally laugh out loud goofy (like when Bullet labels his muscle exposing pretty boy of a friend a latent homosexual -- or anytime Ted Levine is on camera in his dirty skivvies). It may not connect as a crime or character study, but you just might experience a sense of guilty pleasure.
New Line deserves a great deal of praise for part of their DVD presentation of Bullet. There are actually four versions of the film available on this single disc. You have the option of viewing the theatrical version (rated R) in either full screen or anamorphic widescreen (at a 1.85:1 ratio) or the unrated version in both transfers. All four look amazing. There are no compression or print defects and the colors are bright and sharp. Of all the permutations one can experience, the recommendation is to go with the uncut anamorphic widescreen version. There you will witness director Temple's visual flare and imaginative framing/composition skills while sampling the sex and grue that the R version cuts out. On the sound front, there is nothing special about the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. The mix is good, but the soft-spoken dialogue (remember, several cast members here mistake inarticulation for emoting) sometimes gets lost. The only extra offered is a five-minute publicity piece which, if it does nothing else, offers a chance to see just how normal Mickey Roarke is when he wants to be. But it really offers very little interesting context about the film (except for the throwaway line that "parts" of Bullet were based on screenwriter Bruce Rubenstein's life -- YIKES!). If ever a movie cried out for an in-depth, own up and confess it all commentary it's this one. Too bad New Line didn't force Temple to bite down on this Bullet and narratively own up. Like the director's past work with that seminal punk band the Sex Pistols, this crime drama as therapist's nightmare shares a great deal in common with the description of Sid Vicious by manager Malcolm McLaren. Bullet is, likewise, a fabulous disaster.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* R-Rated and Unrated Cuts of the Film