Coming on DVD today from Shout! Factory, Bullet in the Face is a (deep breath) dystopian hyper-violent action-comedy series that feels like an adaptation of a graphic novel you think you’ve probably read, but you can’t quite remember when. It was created and written by Alan Spencer, creator of the legendary Sledge Hammer!, the tongue-in-cheek 1980s comedy series about a gun-crazy cop. That makes it all the more exciting for those of us of a certain age, but even if the words “Trust me – I know what I’m doing” don’t have any particular relevance to you, Bullet in the Face is still a lot of campy, violent fun.
What’s more, the Parents Television Council says that during the 2012-2013 broadcast year, the show was second only to The Walking Dead in terms of incidents of violence per hour among cable series, and it was the only comedy on the list. So what’s the deal with Bullet in the Face, anyway? Let’s find out – and we’ll also hear from Alan Spencer, who was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his show.
1.The Story Is Utterly Preposterous.
And that’s a good thing, mind you, because Bullet in the Face is silly and it knows it. Set in the quasi-futuristic metropolis of Br?teville City…okay, let’s stop right there. “Br?teville City.” It combines two of my favorite comedy tropes: the extraneous umlaut, and mixing “ville” with “city.” Those things always make me happy – the gold standard of the latter being “The City of Townsville” from The Powerpuff Girls, of course – and also operate a as big flashing sign that what follows is not to be taken seriously.
Anyway, the gothy, arbitrarily German criminal Gunter Vogler (Max E. Williams) is shot in the face by his partner-in-crime Martine (Kate Kelton) during a botched robbery. Gunter then awakens to find that his face (and hair!) has been swapped with that of a bleached-blond police officer he killed, and he is now being blackmailed by the police commissioner (Jessica Steen) to assume the identity of the dead cop and work with his straight-arrow partner (Neil Napier) to track down the people who betrayed him, including agoraphobic and umlauted crime boss Tannh?user (Eddie Izzard), who doesn’t realize that Martine is also in a relationship with rival crime boss Racken (Eric Roberts) under a different, red-headed persona.
And it just gets sillier from there, having as much insight about the nature of identity as, say, American Hustle while turning into a very strange police procedural; Spencer’s Sledge Hammer! taken to its logical extreme. That Bullet‘s Max E. Williams looks quite a lot like Hammer!’s David Rasche doesn’t hurt.
Even when Williams’ mouth is closed, it’s still open – the man has one of those kinds of mouths. And, as you may have noticed from the from the DVD cover art at the top of this page, when he’s blindfolded he resembles Jane Lynch, which is in no way, shape or form a bad thing.
I asked Mr. Spencer if Williams’ resemblance to David Rasche had anything to do with his being cast as Vogler, and he patiently explained that it’s just a coincidence, fangirl. “It’s not like I sat down and conceived of creating another blonde, blue-eyed fascist that could deliver one-liners,” he said. “I actually wasn’t thinking about the character of Sledge Hammer at all when I was channeling Gunter Vogler. In truth, I probably wasn’t thinking at all…just indulging my id and deep rooted psychosis. Both characters are far more autobiographical than ever I care to admit. Both Hammer and Vogler have hair-trigger tempers, so if you put actual triggers in their hands…hilarity and indiscriminate bloodshed ensues.”
Why is he German, then? Enh, why not? The show even hangs a lampshade on his thick German accent in the second episode, though according to Mr. Spencer, it stems from the original conception of the show: “IFC came to me with a premise they were developing that didn’t work. It was about a German cop in a Miami Vice style city and was a pastiche of pastels, a sendup of ’80s style action movies and TV shows. Frankly, I didn’t know why anybody wanted to satirize ’80s tropes, since an entire generation isn’t versed in them. When you choose something bygone as a satirical target, you lose relevance because satire tends to be topical. People can’t fully appreciate exaggerations of clich?s they don’t recognize, so it’s preferable to exist in your own universe. The nice thing about violence is it never goes out of style.
“So, I basically threw out the entire premise and only preserved the concept of a German cop. I also broadened the scope of the series and set it in a pseudo-fantasy, graphic novel environment called Bruteville, which I dubbed ‘a melting pot of crime.’ One of the network executives wanted me to drop that description from the show, as I cite on the DVD commentary, but it defined what the audience was about to see and many of the critics picked up on that.”
Throwing a bone to us Sledge Hammer! fans, Mr. Spencer added, “Trust me; I still know what I’m doing.”
For the record, I refer to him as “Mr. Spencer” out of respect, and because it makes me feel like I’m writing for The New York Times. Call me, Gray Lady! (And speaking of respect, I mean no dis- to the real City of Townsville in Australia’s lovely Queensland. Plan your vacation today!)
2. It’s a Fine-Looking Show.
I have no idea what Bullet in the Face‘s budget was, but for a six-episode IFC series shot in Montreal, this show puts every Canadian penny on the screen. It’s easy to read a bit of Blade Runner into the miniatures of Br?teville City, combined with the fact the taller buildings appear to be honest-to-goodness miniatures mixed with matte paintings, rather than just CGI. Even if it is all pixels, they’re pixels that look like miniatures and mattes, and that’s all right in my book. I considered asking Mr. Spencer about the opticals, but decided against it. I prefer to stick with my fantasies for now. (He probably addresses such things in the aforementioned DVD commentary, which I’m not going to listen to until after this piece runs.)
3. It’s Funny.
Even if the show weren’t as violent as it is (and we’ll get to that), Bullet in the Face would still be funny because of Mr. Spencer’s sharp, witty script. Does that make the violence unnecessary? No, but when you’re trying to be both shocking and funny, the humor has to come first, and I’m a sucker for quip-filled dialog. These kinds of words live or die by how well the cast can deliver them; Eddie Izzard is of course a comedy MVP, so it’s no surprise that he hits all his lines out of the park.
I asked Mr. Spencer if Izzard or other cast members improvised on the set.
“Most definitely, because it’s important to give an artist like that freedom. Nevertheless, Eddie was very respectful of the material. What you’re seeing is a mix of him staying on script, transfiguring passages as well as embarking on some designated flights of fancy.
“As a young man I spent time on the set of Young Frankenstein and watched Marty Feldman do many improvisational riffs that made it to film like ‘walk this way.’ It’s important never to tighten the reins on an inventive, protean mind. Eddie Izzard is a classic performer whose abilities are limitless, hence you don’t limit him.
“Similarly, Eric Roberts also adapted some of the phraseology to his unique delivery while also adhering tightly to the script. My feelings about improvisation are it’s healthy to let people do it and if they come up with good stuff, I get credit for it anyway.”
Y’know, he makes a valid point – it’s not like I talked to Eric Roberts or anything. I should add that Max E. Williams holds his own, and as well he should, being the star of the show. It’s a minor moment in the scheme of things, and it helps if you’ve watched the first episode, but his delivery of “I know not what to do” from early on in the second episode is when he really won me over.
Note: Though it’s only 10 seconds long, this clip is probably NSFW, featuring as it does a closeup of a head with a bullet hole and splattery brain matter for a few of those seconds.
4. It’s So Violent, You’ll Make the Parents Television Council Cry if You Watch It.
Parents Television Council
The warning about the hole-in-the-head clip notwithstanding, Bullet in the Face is not all that gory a show. There are lots of gunshots and squibs and rampant amorality – if you’re expecting an arc in which living the life of a cop results in Gunter becoming a better person, especially because it’s a comedy and people are supposed to learn things in comedies, you may be a tad disappointed – but it’s far from torture porn, or even the sustained ickiness of an average episode of The Walking Dead, which kept Bullet in the Face from being the most violent show on cable in the Parents Television Council’s An Examination of Violence, Graphic Violence, and Gun Violence in the Media report for the 2012-2013 season.
Granted, the six 22-minute episodes of Bullet were only broadcast in August 2012, and there are no more episodes being produced, which actually makes the fact that it’s so high up on the list all the more impressive. (And, hey, there’s Justified! Best scripted live-action drama on the air right now, for my money.)
Even better, after Mr. Spencer tweeted proudly about his over-the-top comedic fantasy making the list of Most Extremely Violent Shows, the Communications and Policy Director for the PTC essentially (and unwisely) picked a fight with him on Twitter.
@MrAlanSpencer Context, according to the guy who profits off it, is a miserable defense for the content we cited. You created it. Own it.
I’m a sucker for a nifty theme song; there were times that I stuck with the early seasons of Smallville largely because of how much I liked Remy Zero’s “Save Me.” (Note: I am in no way comparing Bullet in the Face to Smallville.) Bullet’s catchy techno theme is by AmA; a budget-friendly rewrite of her original song “Dispatch,” it also lays out the themes, as theme songs kinda should by definition:
Is he good, is he bad
Psychopath or sexy cad
Sin or saint
The sinner fell
But the saint wound up in hell
They took his face, gave him another
He changed his place
Bullet in the face
Got it? Good.
6. It’s Short.
What are you, busy? The total running time is 135 minutes. Trust me, you’ve watched stuff lately that’s a lot longer and lot less entertaining. Mind you, it ends with a cliffhanger that’s quite a kick in the teeth. I asked Mr. Spencer if there’s any plan to continue on the story in a different medium; just because half the major characters [SPOILER REDACTED] and the other half [SPOILER REDACTED] doesn’t mean their adventures have to end.
“I’d been approached by graphic novel company about putting out a companion piece to Bullet in the Face,” Mr. Spencer said, “but once the network got cold feet and unceremoniously aired the series over two nights as ‘an event,’ those talks dissipated. Perhaps if the DVD from Shout! Factory sells well, and all indications are that it will, those talks will resume. In the meantime, anyone interested in hearing more about the show can always follow me on twitter (@MrAlanSpencer) or call me at home, preferably after the dinner hour. I tend to eat around six.”