Friday, September 14, 2012

Bullet in the Face: Deranged and Violent, But Terribly Fun

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 14, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Max Williams and Neil Napier in Bullet in the Face, on IFC

The TV universe is full of shows that seem designed to appeal to those who favour hallucination over reality. The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim’s staggeringly long-running Aqua Teen Hunger Force (re-titled in recent seasons as Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1 and this past summer, in its 9th season, as Aqua Something You Know Whatever) certainly seem to have embraced the coveted “too impatient for linear narrative, too stoned to change the channel” demo with some success – but it is rare for a live-action series to go that route. Enter Bullet in the Face: a Canadian-produced noir parody series, created by Alan Spencer and starring former pro hockey player Max Williams alongside veteran actors Eric Roberts and Eddie Izzard, which had its 6-episode first season air in mid-August on IFC in the U.S. and Super Channel in Canada, beginning on September 17th.

Williams plays Gunter Vogler, a German-accented sociopathic mob enforcer whose life takes a sudden turn when he gets shot in the face and wakes to find that an experimental medical procedure has left him wearing the face of a cop he recently killed. It's all part of an insane scheme by Police Commissioner Eva Braden (Jessica Steen) to use Vogler to take down her city's underworld in one fiery swoop. Of course Vogler turns out to be impossible to control and the plan leaves dozens of bodies in its wake, innocent and guilty alike. (A few samples of his general outlook: when his ‘partner’ tells him that the city is being torn apart because of lack of manpower, Vogler retorts “Then use children.” When asked if he ever “gets tired of being so relentlessly evil all the time”, he replies “Of course. That's why I take naps.”) Williams’ crazed energy more than carries the show through its manic plotlines, but Eddie Izzard, as the agoraphobic crime boss Tannhäuser, is given many of the show’s best and most over-the-top lines. (Asked at one point by a lackey to explain why he’s decided to blow up the city’s hospitals, Tannhauser explains that “It's what King Herod would have done.”)

Eddie Izzard as Tannhäuser
Each episode opens with the haunting voice of singer Amanda Bauman singing a contagious torch song evocative of a classic James Bond theme, but with lyrics as subtle as, well, a bullet in the face. (They took his face / Gave him another / He changed his place / Bullet in the face.”) Set in a kind of dystopian bubble universe – the neo-noir metropolis of Brüteville seems to both be North American and European at the same time (well, it was filmed in Montreal after all), and its denizens all seem to speak with different, and often unrecognizable, accents – Bullet in the Face looks, feels, and sounds like nothing else on television. With its ambitious and stylized look, its unrestrained violence, and its barking mad lead character, the series hearkens back to the deranged cartoon lunacy of Sam Raimi’s still underappreciated Darkman (1990).

But its lunacy is both Bullet in the Face’s strongest and weakest feature. With every actor hamming it up to the highest degree (Izzard and Roberts seem to be having the time of their on-screen lives), I have to confess that Bullet in the Face brought me a strange kind of delight. At its best, it feels a live-action version of Archer, though its hallucinogenic tempo wears thin at times, and often made me grateful there were only 6 episodes. It is also in comparison to Archer that Bullet falls most decidedly short. Though the jokes are quick in coming, Bullet has a much higher miss-to-hit ratio than Archer, with almost every third joke falling decidedly flat. Whereas the animated Archer (whose fourth season will air on FX sometime this fall) somehow finds humanity in its characters and relationships, Bullet fills its rolls with largely two-dimensional archetypal figures who rarely step out of their established parameters. Gunter’s partner Karl Hagerman played by native Montrealer Neil Napier is the one exception however, with Napier bringing a bit of surprising complexity, if not actually depth, to his portrayal of the unexpectedly thin-skinned but hard-boiled Detective Hagerman.

David Rasche as Inspector Sledge Hammer
Series creator Alan Spencer is still most famous for creating Sledge Hammer! for ABC in 1986. Sledge Hammer! aired for only two seasons, but it remains one of the favourite shows of my teen years. Starring David Rasche (Men in Black 3) as the eponymous Inspector Hammer, Sledge Hammer! was a subversive parody of the cop genre – a half-hour spoof of the “cop on the edge” stories that had been gracing the big screen for over a decade. In the vernacular of the time, Hammer was a "man [who] makes Rambo look like Pee-wee Herman." I confess that my 15-year-old self might not have altogether conscious of its revolutionary character, but even a neophyte like myself knew I was seeing something entirely new. I am only just now beginning to realize how formative Sledge Hammer!, along with Max Headroom (another ABC series which aired at the same time), was for my still developing TV sensibilities.

While Sledge Hammer!’s unapologetic comic violence might appear a bit clownish by contemporary standards, Spencer regularly pushed the network envelop in an era when popular culture wasn’t known for its non-conformism. With its gun-happy protagonist, and his “I [heart] violence” bumper sticker, Sledge Hammer! still holds up even our post-Sopranos and Walking Dead era. Five minutes into the pilot episode, Hammer pulls a rocket launcher out of the trunk of his car and casually knocks down a 15-storey building in order to take out a sniper on its roof. (A scene I’m certain would be cut if written in 2012.) The jokes may have been juvenile – Spencer after all was only 26 when he created the series – but it was like nothing else on the air: it was a sitcom with a body count.

Bullet in the Face marks Alan Spencer’s return to television after over two decades, and as uneven as it may be, the 15-year-old in me was overjoyed to meet him again. After burning through its first season in two consecutive nights, it is doubtful that IFC ever intended to order a second season. (This past spring, we saw NBC take much the same strategy with the charming but ill-fated Amanda Peet rom-com Bent.) Bullet in the Face might not be for everyone, if dark comedy, cartoonish violence, and lunacy are your cup of tea, you’ll feel right at home in Brüteville.