Judge Michael Nazarewycz has no need for a Sledge Hammer!
"Why not seek redemption?"
I have been a fan of Eddie Izzard since I first saw his Dress to Kill stand-up special on HBO in the late 1990s. He is a funny, smart, and charming stand-up comedian and actor, and while his film choices have been hit-or-miss, his two-season, 20-episode TV drama The Riches is still one of my favorite shows of all time. With that, I couldn't resist the prospect of another Izzard TV effort, and I wondered how this one got by me.
Facts of the Case
While there are several plot lines in Bullet in the Face, the show centers on Gunter Vogler (Max E. Williams, The Great Buck Howard), a killer who works for Brüteville crime boss Johann Tannhauser (Eddie Izzard, Ocean's Twelve). Gunter's girlfriend, Martine (Kate Kelton, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), a fellow criminal and Tannhauser employee, is pregnant with his child. During a botched robbery, Gunter kills a cop but then Martine double-crosses Gunter and shoots him in the face, leaving him for dead. Gunter lives, and the police have reconstructive surgery performed on his face to make him look like the dead cop. They hope to use him to "fight evil with evil" to topple Tannhauser's criminal operation, as well as that run by rival mob boss Racken (Eric Roberts, Lovelace). There are twists aplenty, with the fate of Brüteville hanging in the balance.
Bullet in the Face is a six-episode action/comedy series that aired on IFC in 2012. Each episode is about 22 minutes long.
• "Meet Gunter Vogler"—Character introductions, origin stories, and plot setup.
• "Angel of Death"—Police informants in witness protection are being killed.
• "Drug of Choice"—Energy drinks are being spiked with drugs, causing rage in, and murder from, all who drink them.
• "Kiss Me Thrice"—Gunter attempts to infiltrate Racken's mob.
• "The World Stage"—Prostitutes are killing gangsters and each boss thinks the other is responsible.
• "Cradle to Grave"—Everything culminates and ends with…a cliffhanger?
I now know how this one got by me. First, it aired across only two nights in August, a point on the calendar when I pay little attention to television. Second, the show lasted a blink-and-you'll-miss-it six episodes. Executive Producer Alan Spencer (Sledge Hammer!) notes in the commentary that a six-episode run was the grand plan all along, and that there is no cliffhanger but rather a definitive ending that is obvious if you pay close enough attention. In response I would say there is an ending that can be interpreted as definitive, but the final scene clearly leaves the door open for more to happen. No one ever walked through that door.
Regardless, the show simply isn't that funny. It's not for lack of trying, of course, and that's the root of the problem: Spencer, who is also the series' creator and sole writer, tries too hard to be funny. This show feels like an exercise throwing as many zingers in the script as possible and hoping enough of them stick. It's madness, and instead of it feeling like Spencer's best work, it feels like all of his work.
The law of large numbers says that that will find success at times, and it does. More times, though, it plods through immature duds and flirts with being pejorative. (Example: Gunter suspects his police partner had a secret same-sex relationship with the cop he is now posing as. A search of the late cop's apartment reveals CDs including Barry Manilow and the Xanadu soundtrack, embracing a homosexual stereotype and making a joke out of it. It's lazy at best, offensive at worst.
Another contributing factor to this is the experience of the cast. The funniest parts of the show are consistently delivered by polished veteran Izzard, as well as episode five's special guest, The Daily Show's Larry Wilmore (in what is the best scene across the entire series). Izzard and Wilmore know how to deliver funny lines and know how to make the most of lines that aren't as funny. Spencer also notes in the commentary that he let Izzard and Wilmore improvise. The rest of the cast doesn't have that kind of delivery or improvisational experience, and it shows.
What results from these two issues—every joke possible and a weak delivery system for them—is the feeling that many lines will quickly be followed by a wink and a nudge and a "see what I did there" quest for affirmation. Even the "joke" I quote in The Charge (above) screams for Fozzie Bear to appear, belting his trademark "Waka waka!"
What's frustrating is that Bullet in the Face is a clever conceit that gleefully wallows in tropes from classic (and neo) noir, as well as modern action films. There is a lot to mine from those genres, and some of the series' audaciousness could have worked wonders in those spaces had it all been properly developed.
The show also has considerable technical strengths. All of the periphery that is often taken for granted—settings, costumes, hair, make-up, etc.—are well conceived, designed, and executed. The visual is something of a cross between 1990's Dick Tracy minus the four-color splash and 1984's Streets of Fire minus all of the rain. It's like a living graphic novel, where everything onscreen has a distinct and dynamic style, all the way down to characters' faces, and it's a lot of fun to look at.
I wish Shout! Factory had produced a Blu-ray version of this because the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer does a very good job spotlighting those great graphic novel visuals, even on this basic DVD release. The Blu rinse would have made those sharp images even sharper, and it surely couldn't have hurt the Dolby Digital 5.1 English track, which is perfectly fine—all crisp and clear—on this disc.
The only Extra is commentary by Spencer, who fills all six episodes with everything from on-set anecdotes and behind the scenes machinations to routine one-liners (even more jokes?!) and some industry name-dropping. Spencer has a lot to say, which is a refreshing change from some of the awkwardly-sporadic commentary found on some discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all of its flaws, the series is served well by being presented at once. Had I seen only the first episode, I don't think I would have returned for the second, but by approaching it as a single six-chapter work, I became a little more willing to go with it. That doesn't absolve the problems, but it makes the problems more bearable.
Bullet in the Face isn't funny enough to be carried by laughs, nor bad enough to be so-bad-it's-good, and it is often times its own worst enemy. Still, there was something about binge-watching all six episodes that made the overall experiment entertaining. The whole wound up being greater than the sum of its parts (albeit barely).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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