Bullet Head is a masterful piece of genre filmmaking.
Bullet Head, written and directed by Paul Solet, proves that, just when you thought you’d seen it all, someone will go and mash up a caper-gone-wrong flick with a Frankenstein movie. The movie scoops up its clichés and embraces them without apology, daring you to think decades of watching movies will have prepared you for this story. It did, but Bullet Head is such a fun ride you really won’t mind that you can see the ending through the nonlinear structure. This jaunt is an ode to Mamet, Tarantino and Jaws, but instead of a great white shark with soulless eyes, the monster is an abused pit bull reanimated by electricity like Shelley’s monster. The dog holds all the pain and cruelty it has suffered in its eyes, just like Karloff, its forebear in monsterdom.
Raised by its master (Antonio Banderas) to be a viscous champion in underground dogfights, the dog wins its last battle, but the toll on its body is too great. Lamed and whimpering, its master leaves the dog to the mercy of its trainer, who leads it to a shallow tub of water, connects jumper cables to its ears and electrocutes the dog. Mercifully this happens off-screen, but the pile of canine corpses beside the tub hint at electrocution being standard operating procedure for broken fighters. The jolt only serves to erase any sense of obedience in the dog, and the trainer pays the price.
The dogfights are held in the underbelly of a massive, dilapidated warehouse, and morning brings a multigenerational trio of thieves into the rotting structure. Walker (John Malkovich) is the wizened vet who just can’t leave the life, Gage (Rory Culkin) is the young junkie who works only to support his habit and the glue holding them together is Stacy (Adrien Brody), the guy looking for that last score that will never come. Their job went sideways. Their driver crashed the car outside the warehouse before he died. They’re trying to lay low until night falls and Stacy can arrange transportation out of their predicament. As predicaments go, this one is pretty harsh, but they don’t even know there’s an angry pit bull with a taste for people roaming the halls around them. It is the Minotaur, and they have entered its maze.
Now this is a goofy idea, and Solet pulls out all the filmmaking tricks to make it work. The plot is arranged nonlinearly, focusing mainly on Brody’s character and the pit bull. Flashbacks show the motivation for Stacy’s last score, while the dog’s life is told backwards, ending on its first encounter with its master. There are several shots from the dog’s POV that are reminiscent of and as equally unsuccessful as the alien’s POV shots in Alien 3. In fact, they rob us of more time with the dog’s face, a mug that just garners sympathy. Solet makes great use of the warehouse, dressing it like a dusty mausoleum. Broken crates and inventory cover every floor, the stuff of retail dreams that were never fulfilled.
The cast all came to play. Brody invests Stacy with gravitas as he tries to keep his colleagues alive until help arrives. Malkovich brings a fatalistic touch to Walker; he knows he’s been a thief for too long and his inability to find his own exit will be his end. Culkin plays Gage with the reckless courage of a junkie and the innocence of a child. He shuffles through his scenes with a stiffness akin to early onset rigor mortis. With each passing film he makes a case for being the finest thespian in his acting family. Each character gets a monologue explaining whether they are dog people or cat people. Culkin’s is so good it’s devastating. Antonio Banderas also gets a monologue, and it is as menacing as everything else he does in his brief screen time. He’s the real monster and plays the part with gusto.
Bullet Head is a masterful piece of genre filmmaking. It is undoubtedly a slight-of-hand trick accomplished by fine acting, rapid pacing and clever editing, but it also serves as a reminder of the fun that can be had at the lower end of the moviemaking spectrum. Its lack of bloat is its charm while its inventiveness is refreshing. You haven’t seen it all. There are still surprises out there and this is one of them.