Movie Review: BULLET HEAD
Sometimes your creative eyes are bigger than your imagination’s stomach. Sometimes your attempt to pack multiple interesting ideas into one story results in you failing to fully develop any single idea into the best story it can be. That’s largely how I feel about Bullet Head, a watch made worthwhile due to its cast and its promise, but that I can’t really recommend because it seems to leave so much on the table.
The general premise is strong: three cons pull a heist that results in them getting locked in a building with a super-vicious, desperate dog, a poor mastiff abused and trained to kill. As “trapped with the monster” setups go, it’s different enough to draw you in. Unfortunately, it doesn’t prove quite as intense as you’d think.
One reason why is that, in an effort to make these criminal characters marginally likable, the film treats us to a couple of extended digressions into past heists they’ve pulled. And the thing is, it’s partially effective! It helps that the actors in question are Adrien Brody and John Malkovich. Rory Culkin isn’t bad either. It also helps that two of their stories are pretty breezy, the kind that make you think, “Hey, these guys aren’t so bad. They’re the type of crooks who do harmless jobs.” They feel like the kind of reasonably entertaining yarns you like to think you’d overhear at a bar that a reformed con or two is a regular.
The problems with these stories are twofold. They’re a bit out of place in a movie that features some audibly brutal (though all offscreen) dog-fighting and cruelty (the one non-breezy story ends on a more fittingly grim note, but it’s the last story told and by then the tone feels all over the place). Also, they’re just interesting enough to make you wish this was more the crux of the movie; some professional lowlifes who’ve done uncommon robberies bonding and building and trying to figure out what’s next. It feels like that’s what this movie was supposed to be at some point, but the notes on the original script said, “Needs more action. Can you add a robbery? Maybe something high-concept but also gritty? Down-to-earth but unusual, something worthy of an elevator pitch. Hey, dogs have been hot of late because of that John Wick movie, can you mix a dog into this somehow? I know that might not be the version of this movie you really want to make, but that’s what I think you should make.”
I hate to fault a film for its ambition, but this movie wants to have more than it can have, especially in the time allowed. It’s too dramatic to be thrilling and too absurd to be sincere. The mastiff stalks the premises like a slasher killer certain points in the film. In one scene, even with a police dog not only on the premises, but literally around the corner, it manages to sneak up unheard then disappear just as deftly. Having lived with a dog who can hear when the neighbor’s dogs come outside from inside the house and without them barking, this moment almost made me laugh out loud. Either that K-9 cop just pretended not to hear the mastiff because, “Eff that, I’m a dog-year away from retirement,” or the bigger dog is also part ninja.
In other moments we get POV shots of the dog chasing after people as though we’re watching Alien 3 or The Evil Dead or the like. During one chase scene a character escapes through a conveniently placed tube slide like it’s The Goonies, then utters a line made famous in The Thing when he realizes the dog is coming down the slide after him. All of which is fine, except if you’re going to introduce such things as though you’re trying to make a fun, exhilarating monster movie, you might need to cool it on the naked sentiment. You can work meaningful drama into certain types of horror stories. This ain’t one of ’em.
All that said, the film still could have made itself worth a recommendation if its chase scenes actually felt energetic, but they don’t. The mastiff never really looks like he’s running at top speed, or like it isn’t just playing. The men it’s chasing never really look like they’re trying to get away from something that’s going to maul them to death if it catches them. The characters are, of course, in danger, but the movie struggles to make it feel like they are.
When staged well, action can generate a sense of menace even when you’re 100% sure of the outcome. I’ve seen Die Hard I don’t know how many times, but there’s still part of me that wants to hold my breath when McClane’s about to jump off the roof of the Nakatomi building, as if I don’t know he’s going to make it. Watching Bullet Head for the first time, I never felt like I was watching anything other than some skilled actors being professionals, but not committing to the physicality. “I’m not going to risk rolling my ankle over the ‘Dogs & Robbers’ movie,” their body language seems to say. And I can’t even blame them for that.
Final Verdict: Not mad I watched it, but wish it was better, and can’t recommend it.