'Tetsuo' Barely There in 'The Bullet Man'

Directed by: Shinya Tsukamoto, Runtime: 76 minutes
Grade: C-

Shinya Tsukamoto's original Tetsuo unleashes hostile metaphorical imagery on its audience by illustrating a man's body being overcome with twisting gears, wires, and pistons, an expression of sexual awakening that's in turns infuriatingly freeform and utterly mesmerizing. Grainy black-and-white photography and a frantic editing style invoke a persistent state of unease, and the disquieting energy it generates isn't something terribly easy to forget. I mention this in greater detail within discussion about Tsukamoto's third Tetsuo film, The Bullet Man, largely because this particular entry stands as a rather different beast, even if the cerebral Japanese director's aesthetic remains palpable. Uncontrollable machinery still thrashes about in faintly analytical fashion, yet its deviation from the qualities of the original -- the look, the momentum, and the purpose -- weigh it down into a scattershot, drab mess.

Much like its predecessors, The Iron Man and Body Hammer, Tsukamoto's latest also powers on the steam of a minimal plot, revolving around the themes of grief and internal turmoil as transformative drivers. This time, the subject falls on the death of a child; a father (Eric Bossick) -- an American working out of Japan, with a Japanese wife -- witnesses his son getting hit by a speeding car, driven by the man (Tsukamoto himself) at the center of the other mechanical abominations from the previous films. He undergoes the same frantic metamorphosis as those before him, slowly morphing into a man made of steel and steam that's virtually indestructible. And with the voice of his wife dominating his ear, calling for revenge on the man that killed their boy, the descent turns into an exploration of their internal demons, alongside delving into the man's personal history with his family and work.

The Bullet Man might broadly mirror its predecessors in concept, but a sizable draw to Tsukamoto's projects lie in the thrashing visual composition. Almost immediately, the film deviates from its pre-established aesthetic; framed wide, shot in crisp high-definition footage instead of grainy black-and-white, and sporting hefty computer-generated imagery within modern shaky-cam style, it veers even further from the virtuoso collage of found objects and raw twisted allure that bolstered the original, more aligned with the composition utilized in Vital than anything else. On the other hand, the editing style and furious movement retains Tsukamoto's haunting stabs at lurid sensory provocation, encapsulated within dense textures and steam as Chi Ishikawa's searing noise-driven music clanks and sputters. Without taking the story into account, The Bullet Man exerts its abrasive force in a fashion not remotely as involving, yet still ascertains industrial, eye-candy-caliber rawness.

The reliance on a clearly-defined purpose instead of an interpretive allegory becomes a problem, though, making this a rare occurrence where heightened transparency and cohesiveness diminish an abstract film's quality. Where The Iron Man revels in obfuscated vagueness, as mechanical sex organs and wild, piqued eyes blur into an undefined exploration of awakening and abandon, this continuation of the series fumbles its intellectual firepower by directly centering on revenge and the struggles accompanying the death of one's a child. The idea seems sound, even intriguing and potentially thought-provoking as a meditation on loss and the consuming umbrage that follows; yet it only works as an insubstantial skeleton for Tsukamoto to adorn with his elaborate visual grime, hampered by an inelegant navigation of the English language and a clear satisfaction in dishing out more of the same brash imagery.

Tsukamoto's aptitude as a showman of the abrasive shouldn't be discredited, though, and The Bullet Man still projects a haze of textured corridors and ricocheting bullets that makes it worth watching as an artistic curiosity. He instinctively draws his audience into the encrusted dark makeup work and fuming computer-generated machines, cobbling together a series of gritty expanses -- alongside his shrewd editorial style -- into a furious punk atmosphere that fans of the cult director will find involving. That's largely a byproduct of the fluency built after enduring the director's work, from his previous Tetsuo projects to the likes of the subversive A Snake of June; those accustomed to his aggressive style will find flickers of gratification within witnessing another plunge into psychosomatic mechanical consumption, yet the misspent smarts make it feel like little more than a mere sequel not unlike some commonplace horror franchise.

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