Sitges 2009: TETSUO THE BULLET MAN Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Sitges 2009: TETSUO THE BULLET MAN Review
Brace yourself for disappointment.  As painful as it is to say, Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo The Bulletman is far indeed from being the triumphant return to the iconic world that created a rabid cult around Tsukamoto.  Worse than that, not only does this latest incarnation of Tetsuo fail to live up to his predecessors but he also represents the first, one hundred percent, abject failure of Tsukamoto's career. 

The first of Tsukamoto's films to be shot in English - part of the problem but far from the most significant - Tetsuo The Bulletman stars Eric Bossick as Anthony, a young white man born and raised in Tokyo by his researcher-father who is now raising a young family of his own.  It should be a happy time in Anthony's life but his wife is plagued by crippling anxiety, anxiety that largely prevents her from leaving their home and centers on recurring nightmares around a horrible fate for the pair's young son Tom.

Tragically, those dreams turn out to be prophetic and Tom is cruelly run down by a car in the street.  Anthony tries to hold it together, much to the anger of his wife who wants to see him fly into a rage.  And Anthony does eventually lose the firm grip he has on his emotions, the slide into anger triggering a bizarre transformation within his own body, Anthony transforming into a strange metallic monster much to the delight of the strange man - Tsukamoto himself - who ran down Tom and continues to taunt Anthony from a distance.

The first question people had of this new Tetsuo film was why english?  And the answer is the obvious one: it's an attempt to play to the international market.  But it's one that won't work.  Not because the actor's aren't good but because Tsukamoto has all of them deliver their lines in a bizarre rhythm and heightened style that obviously owes much to the director's own history in experimental theater but thoroughly prevents us from being able to tell if they're any good or not.  They could be good.  They could be horrible.  But working under the strictures laid down by their director - and I have no doubt whatsoever that he got exactly what he wanted here in terms of performance - nobody in the audience will ever know.

Much more significant are flaws in the script itself and the shooting style.  Previous Tetsuo films took much of their power from their ambiguity.  They were all about impulse and raw emotion spilling over, the script's vague enough to allow the audience to read their own interpretations of what is happening and why into the proceedings.  Not so here, Tsukamoto not only giving in to the urge to explain too much but also doing an exceptional poor job of it, dipping into entirely unearned melodrama territory in devastatingly haphazard fashion.  Not only is the why of Anthony's transformation entirely unsatisfying but it is delivered in such poor fashion that even the greatest treatise ever written on man-machine fusions wouldn't have done the trick.

Compounding the script problems are Tsukamoto's choice to shoot in high def digital while employing remarkably shoddy - and entirely unconvincing - special effects work.  Tetsuo films in the past have been marked by their grit, the grainy shooting style perfectly matching the visceral transformations and allowing the audience to buy into Tokyo as an alternate world where this could really happen.  The ultra-high crispness of digital - even when framed and lit in vintage Tsukamoto style - simply undoes this effect.  Everything is too clean, too defined and Tokyo simply looks like Tokyo.  Even worse, the shift to high definition badly exposes the special effects.  Anthony doesn't look like metal, he looks like rubber.  He wobbles.  The texture is all wrong.  Rather than turning in to a beast of organic metal, Anthony simply becomes a lump of unimpressive latex.

An enormous disappointment, the only way Tetsuo The Bullet Man could ever be considered a success is if Tsukamoto's goal in making it was to prevent anyone from ever asking him to make another.

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Shin'ya TsukamotoHisakatsu KurokiEric BossickAkiko MonôYûko NakamuraStephen SarrazinActionHorrorSci-Fi

More about Tetsuo The Bullet Man

renoSeptember 5, 2009 2:17 PM

well that sucks...

san ku kaiSeptember 5, 2009 4:35 PM

Not exactly good news ... not as if I was looking forward to a new American Tetsuo in the first place, but still ...
I really liked the way things were going for Tsukamoto ... loved "Snake of June" and "Vital" ... "Haze" and "Nightmare Detective I-II" were very interesting ... he didn't need to go back to Tetsuo ... but if if he chose to do so I would except it to be something special ...

JustinPDSeptember 5, 2009 5:00 PM


Maybe, as many have pointed out, it's Tsukamoto telling us to 'Screw off!' with our request for more metal body morphing mayhem.

rpmasseSeptember 5, 2009 5:09 PM

Thats a good review. Honestly, I'm not surprised about your final words.

I'm one of those who don't believe in international style cinema. As such as some others japanese or, even foreign directors, Tsukamoto attempted to make his place on the world scene by making a movie more accessible to everybody. That's not a good idea, considering that if you want to do something understandable by all the world, you have to do it simple, and in english too, just as the basics of Hollywood.

kidlazarusSeptember 5, 2009 7:10 PM

Stunned to read the news regarding this. In my mind I'm hearing Howard Cossel, "Down goes Frazier."
From what I gather there's no chance to salvage anything if it is re-edited.
Your comments about HD bringing out the inherent flaws of the special effects was something I was wondering about from the start. Many huge budget films that are effects-laden and shot HD can be completely undermined by the intense clarity of detail.

katekatekateSeptember 5, 2009 10:27 PM

ouch...removing from queue.

CuttermaranSeptember 6, 2009 8:01 AM

too bad, I was expecting something very powerfull like the old tetsuo movies+the new look of, like "nightmare detective"

Todd BrownSeptember 6, 2009 12:30 PM

No, a re-edit won't help this. The problems go much deeper than that ...

mercurypreySeptember 7, 2009 10:09 AM

Johnnie To tried to appeal to an international audience with VENGEANCE and crashed and burned just as badly. I think some directors don't get that they already enjoy international success just by doing what they're best at doing. They don't need to desperately attempt to cash in on their newfound success through watered-down, lackluster work.

Doctor_Fu_ManchuSeptember 7, 2009 9:45 PM

shit I'll go cry in the shower now, well not really but it's disappointing to hear its bad. Was Nightmare Detective 2 any good?

Todd BrownSeptember 8, 2009 10:21 AM

I like both of the Nightmare Detective films, though the way the Weinsteins botched the release of the first one the chances of the second getting released here is pretty slim. Second one is a lot more abstract than the first ...

steiner from marsSeptember 8, 2009 11:18 AM

It´s dificult to believe that someone like Tsukamoto could have fallen into this comercial shit but being honest, this production really sucked from the very begining.

dwcal3000September 15, 2009 2:22 PM

i'm as big a shinya fan as there is, do you(todd) find any redeeming value to this film at all?, your comparing this directly to the other 2 tetsuo films, made 15 & 20yrs ago, and you could not compare those 2 directly, so, is this really being fair?, i'm sure there's some lofty expectations going into this film. some of the clips i've seen look pretty cool, frenetic & abstract. as for the script, does it really matter, did you really care about the script when watching the other 2 films? it was more about visual film art, and bulletman appears to incorporate this with some degree of professionalism. so you would rate this zero or one star out of 5 stars? electric rod boy and nightmare detective may be shinya's weakest films(other the hiruko)and i'd give them 3 stars...go easy there todd, maybe this needs a couple more viewings

nerdrage0September 25, 2009 3:55 AM

to all people here: seriously? I mean... SERIOUSLY? You all are ready to be disappointed by this film just because of this one review? Not even wait what others will say at least? But why would you want to take stance for a film on someone's review in the first place? Go see it yourself (especially if you are director's fan) and then make your opinion.
I saw some pretty bad reviews for the first Tetsuo as well and yet most of you seem to like it. So seriously... wtf?

kidlazarusSeptember 26, 2009 12:18 PM

Shinya Tsukamoto is one of the few working directors that I'll watch films from regardless of bad reviews.
Todd's critical review is far from the first I've read for it. This has almost been uniformly dismissed in every review I've come across.

ChevalierAguilaOctober 9, 2009 2:02 AM

If this was a film from some unknown hack i wouldn't care, but Tsukanoto? Even if it had the worst reviews ever i still need to see it on my own.

RaffiApril 26, 2010 5:20 PM

I choose to respectfully disagree. I thought it was brilliant flick and on par with Tsukamoto's more creative efforts...check out my review here:

Todd BrownApril 27, 2010 11:50 AM

Out of curiosity Raffi, what is your first language? I just gave this a second chance at HOFF - with the new cut, this review was based on the original version - and still found it horribly, horribly bad. The dodgy English is not the only culprit but it is a significant one and I am curious how it may play to people who speak English as a second language ...