Nobody's so good at being so bad.
Ah, those hard working, unsung heroes who go about their lives doing dangerous and dirty jobs without a word of thanks from anyone. Consummate professionals, they never get the credit they deserve. Are we talking about cops or garbage men or Internet film critics? No, of course we are talking about those poor, forgotten, hard-working hitmen. As we find out in today's feature, being a hitman is no bed of roses.
Facts of the Case
Love and a Bullet is the story of Malik Bishop (rapper Anthony "Treach" Criss of Naughty by Nature). Bishop is a hitman, a professional, one of the best "cleaners" working for Damian Wiles (Charles Guardino—The Princess Diaries, The Other Sister), the local mob boss. Bishop's traumatic childhood haunts him, and the story is as much about his succession of surrogate fathers as it is about the work of killing people.
Damian, a powerful man with a hot temper, has as his fiancée/mistress the beautiful Cynda Griffey (Kent Masters-King—Malibooty, Braceface Brandi). Bishop catches a glimpse of Cynda and immediately becomes infatuated with her. To him she represents everything that could possibly be good and decent in the world; Buddy, one of the senior hitmen, identifies her as one of the rare people in the world that deserve to live. Predictably, she and Damian have a falling out and Bishop is faced with the choice between his professionalism and his conscience.
Complicating matters is Bishop's love interest, Hylene (Shireen Crutchfield—Hot Boyz, House Party 3). She is in the same line of work as Malik, with one difference: she's a top secret government agent, an assassin who kills in the interest of national policy. The two fall in love and share a growing uneasiness about their chosen profession. Just as they are ready to make their break, Hylene disappears, presumably at the hands of Damain's organization.
With all of these conflicting forces tearing at his soul, Bishop's choice comes down to one critical moment. Will he choose love or a bullet, or will he find a way to choose both Love and a Bullet?
Love and a Bullet, with its combination of frank violence, wry humor, and existential musings, is a lot better than I expected it to be. Sure, it's kind of silly. Yes, it rips off everything from The Godfather to GoodFellas to Unforgiven to pretty much Quentin Tarantino's whole filmography. Still, writer/directors Ben Ramsey and Kantz (Random Acts of Violence) mange to bring an original feel to the material and infuse it with an energy and style all their own. More important, they focus their movie on bigger themes than just the travails of a hired gun trying to make his way in the world. They make some bitingly funny comments on disgruntled workers, institutional racism, and faux "why can't we all just get along" liberalism, as well as bigger questions of morality, freedom and power, life and death. Bishop describes himself as "what you would call one of those complex black men," and Ramsey and Kantz draw him that way. His complexity and inner conflict comes to the fore when he is faced with the possibility that he may have to kill Cynda. He is faced with the choice of killing her and losing his soul, or allowing her to live in fear and bondage to Damian. Another theme that runs through the movie is Bishop's search for a father figure. Various gangsters and killers fill that role, and one by one they all fall short and let him down.
The effort benefits greatly from the presence of Treach (Jason's Lyric, Book of Love) as Bishop, the cold but conflicted young hitman. Treach's obvious self-confidence, deadpan delivery, and great reactions serve to make him a much better actor than most musicians who try to make the jump from the studio to the screen. (He also gets extra points for knowing how to hold a pistol correctly, unlike the idiotic sideways shooting style so common in movies of this kind.) Adding greatly to the film is Sam Scarber (Shakedown, Southside) as Buddy, the veteran hitman who takes Bishop under his wing, teaches him the finer points of professional killing, and becomes another in the series of father figures that help to mold his character. The other truly memorable presence in the film is Charles Guardino, who reveals bit by bit through his performance that Damian is, in Bishop's words, "a few ribs short of a slab."
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix on this disc lends itself well to the task at hand. There is a lot of gunfire and related sounds, and it all comes through clearly with a nice sense of directionality. This is especially true in the climactic gun battle in Chapter 27. We see a character fire to the left, and we hear a ricochet, perfectly timed, in the left rear speaker. The audio track provides all of these sounds with an adequate level of punch. The surround channels are also used very nicely with more subtle sorts of effects, such as distant background highway noise in a quieter scene such as Chapter 4. Finally, the whole sound system gets a workout from the bass-heavy hip-hop soundtrack.
Ben Ramsey and Kantz have recorded a commentary track for Love and a Bullet, which is the main piece of added-value content on this disc. It is a wonderfully entertaining track that will keep you in stitches as the duo riff on everything from William Shatner to the Crocodile Hunter to the list of actors that they won't be able to work with after offending them with this film. They tend to range a bit far off topic from time to time, but when they are focused they give some very useful insights into their movie. It seems that TriStar demanded some extensive changes to the film prior to release, and in the process a lot of Bishop's childhood and family backstory was lost, including a mysterious, supernatural figure called the Milkman. The Milkman figure was intended to represent Bishop's family history, his fate, and the consequences of his actions. It is a shame that this material was cut out of the picture; it sounds very intriguing, and could have added a layer of spookiness and mysticism that could only have enriched the final product. On the other hand, it is hard to see how this material would have fit with the almost raucously comedic tone of the rest of the picture, but it would have been better if they had been allowed to preserve their intended film. Ramsey and Kantz come across in the commentary as genuinely decent guys with a good knowledge of film history as well as the mechanics of putting a film together. They are completely honest about which films they stole from, never hiding behind the euphemism "homage." They are also completely candid about what they tried in the film that didn't work out. Finally, they are full of interesting tips for aspiring filmmakers about how to learn the basics of shooting a film, and emphasizing fundamentals like good pre-production planning and the like. It was planning like this that allowed them to shoot up to fifty-seven setups in one day, and to complete the entire film for $500,000.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Picture quality on this disc is not pretty. Love and a Bullet comes to us from Screen Gems, part of the Columbia TriStar umbrella, so it had a strike or two against it going in, although some of the problems are probably due to the low-budget nature of the production. In any case, the image is slightly soft through most of the picture, interrupted by occasional moments of sharpness and clarity. The picture is intensely grainy, often made worse by what seems to be digital artifacting and noise. Solid surfaces strobe, shimmer, and buckle before our very eyes. For a good example of what I mean, cue up Chapter 10 and look at the suits the two men are wearing in that shot. Fine textures are mostly terrible; Hylene's hair usually looks more like pasta than anything else. On the positive side, colors are solid and faithful, blacks and reds are deep and true. The transfer handles bright colors like the blaze orange coveralls worn by the hit team in Chapter 8 with no trouble at all.
While the movie itself is fun and entertaining, the truth is that there is not much original here. The idea of the professional killer just doing a job like any other working stiff has been done to death, and whatever moral and spiritual conflicts Bishop has have all been heard before as well. This is a film constructed of off-the-shelf parts, a mix-and-match assortment of clichés. It puts a new spin on them and makes for a fun and often hilarious ride, but underneath it all we start to keep a mental checklist: Oh yeah, this part is Pulp Fiction. This part is GoodFellas. The list goes on. This is kind of a pity, because the ideas that Kantz and Ramsey mention in their commentary track would have taken Love and a Bullet into a different area altogether and made it a much better, much more original, and ultimately better film. I guess we can blame the primitive screwheads at the studio for messing it up.
Many of the original concepts for Love and a Bullet, including the mysterious Milkman figure, live on in The Contract. The Contract started as a flash animation series over at Urban Entertainment, and has recently been released on DVD. It looks interesting, and if you like Love and a Bullet you may want to give The Contract a spin as well. Along with this review is a link to a site with more information about The Contract, including RealVideo interviews with Treach, Kent Masters-King, and the duo of Ben Ramsey and Kantz. In the interviews the participants speak about their experiences in both endeavors, this film and the animated version. It's worth a look if you are interested in either one of these productions.
Love and a Bullet is free to go. Treach is especially commended for a good performance—he maybe should give up his night job and concentrate on acting, because he shows some real potential. Columbia TriStar, on the other hand, is guilty of a number of offenses. The studio suits are guilty of forcing a pair of interesting and creative filmmakers to butcher their work into a fast, slick, "commercial" movie. The DVD department is guilty of all their usual offenses, mostly indifferent treatment of the video presentation. Lock 'em up.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Director's Commentary
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