The human capacity for imagination makes us capable of generating the most wonderful dreams and terrible nightmares conceivable- the most profound of which tend to deal in emotions, symbolic imagery, and vague, incomplete events rather than heavily plotted stories filled with connecting detail. Nightmares strike us deeper when they exploit horrors based on unrealized fears, or by taking our daily fears and enlarging them an order of magnitude or more. The first Tetsuo film operated on just such a level- a construct of texture and shadow, the main character of which was constantly running from nameless terror, while his own body became an engine of cancerous growth. Captured in 16mm and freely employing frantic stop-motion and abstract cut-aways, the first film is a something between a music video, an avant-garde art film, and a hallucinatory narcotic. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is the second sequel to original cult favorite, and like its predecessor The Body Hammer, it ultimately fails to capture anything like the horror or nightmarish energy of the original. Unfortunately, also like Body Hammer, it tries to simultaneously remake and build-upon the original, meaning it preserves the insubstantial runtime and general disregard for logic, so there’s no chance at evolution into anything satisfying on a traditional level. It’s an unhappy middle ground between full-on Lynchian nightmare filmmaking, and something like early Cronenberg that rooted visceral horrors in more traditional, well-told stories.
What little story there is will be familiar to Tetsuo fans with a few modifications- the lead character is a half-American/Japanese man named Anthony, who fills the role of the corporate everyman living in Tokyo with his happy nuclear family. One day, after visiting his health-obsessed, retired-scientist father, Anthony is trotting along with his young son when the little boy is violently and maliciously run down by a strange man in a car, who then gets away. While Anthony has lived his life as a passive man, his stress and anguish after the event start manifesting as physical deformations, all while his wife demands that he seek vengeance. He soon finds himself a target for mysterious missionaries and vaguely military squads of men whose attempt to capture him provide the fuel for his full transformation into “a” Tetsuo. All of this balloons in an epic-scaled doomsday scenario as unnatural forces collide.
While the “American Tetsuo” concept didn’t make it to the screen, this new film does strike from the others by sporting a (mostly) english script. The mutation that Anthony/Tetsuo experiences is another unique creation, this time resembling a grotesque fairy tale troll made of scar tissue and metal. Unlike the scrapyard Swamp Thing style design of the first film, which appeared to be perpetually drowning Taguchi Tomorowo’s face in his own flesh and iron mutation, the “Bullet Man” is more of a technorganic monster with only the hint of the original human peeking through. The extension of Tetsuo’s family to include parents is also new, but they are the result of larger mythology building that really drags down the film. Finally, while the Tetsuo concept didn’t necessarily translate well to higher quality, color photography in Body Hammer, it does work well enough with the digital photography of this film, with its over-bright highlights and desaturated color palette. That said, nothing can replace the grainy, high-contrast feel of black & white 16mm which is inherently more frightening a medium. The shadowy ambiguities of underexposed film stock engage the same parts of our brains that fear the dark, and are the perfect playground for Tsukamoto’s prosthetic monstrosities.
The choice of medium also reflects a problem with the thematic choices, as Bullet Man still plays with very analogue ideas. Dispensing with the primal fears of sexual perversity, bodily decay, and a generally anarchic lust for destruction that he’s played with in the past, for Bullet Man Tsukamoto strikes out with a clunky political statement about militarism and national power. Fears of total destruction from a single immensely powerful weapon seem a bit out-of-time these days though, at least when reduced to such simple allegoric images. The most egregious problem with the movie though, is also the choice to narratively tie all three films together and create a detailed back-story for the deformed hero. Some of this material is comprehensible, some of it not, but it’s all boring and weighs the film down with over-expository nonsense. The nightmare isn’t frightening when it’s wrapped up with a bow.
Most of these criticisms come from the context of the previous films though, so how does the film stack up in a vacuum? It’s definitely a bizarre, overwhelming ride for a casual viewer. Tsukamoto has not lost his ability to bring chaos to the screen, though the sharpness of it has dulled with time. Of course, any asshole can shake the camera around and cut frantically, so it’s to Tsukamoto’s credit that Bullet Man has a few scenes that are legitimately exhilarating. In fact, the first sequence after Tetsuo’s tranformation that results in a car being nearly liquefied by bullets is very well done and promises a much better film than what follows. Once Anthony returns to his father’s home to dig deeper into his history (which happens fairly quickly) things grind to a screeching halt and only pick momentarily a few times before the climax, which is itself disappointing.
For being the longest of the three films, there is least amount of memorable imagery or action, and the most unsatisfying storytelling. The same stop-motion cut-aways are reused over and over again, making you wonder why a (presumably) bigger budget or enhanced technology couldn’t have led to a greater wealth of that kind of material. Fortunately CGI never rears its ugly head in much of a noticeable way, but the soundtrack is a glaring problem. Naturally the film is loud and shrill, but the constant distortion and over-compressed soundtrack are just too much and seem amateurish rather than effectively primitive. The music is filled out with the traditional pulsating, industrial rhythm of the Tetsuo films, with the much-lauded NIN-produced theme only appearing over the credits. The sophistication of that song is retroactively damning to the sound of the actual film though, as you hear how well-done sound engineering can be frighting and aggressive without lazily cranking up the faders.
While there may be a time and a place for a modern Tetsuo film, Bullet Man just further seals that the magic of the first film is the unique combination of time, style, format, intention, theme, technology, and sheer insanity that can’t be replicated. Turning the inexplicable events of Tetsuo: The Iron Man into the base mythology for a fictional universe has quite simply been a mistake, and if Tetsuo is to ever live again, it should be in a new frontier, unsaddled by history or rules. As it is, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is another impotent attempt to imitate the inimitable.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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