DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto
FEATURING: Eric Bossick, Akiko Monô, Shinya Tsukamoto
PLOT: A salaryman with “android DNA” turns into a metal monster when he gets angry.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009) is a virtual English language remake of the same auteur’s original (Certified Weird) Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1985) that’s inferior in every respect except for budget. See the original instead.
COMMENTS: Besides the basic man-becomes-mineral motif, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man contains several explicit nods to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The salaryman’s spastic dance over the opening title is recreated. The metal transformation is once again set in motion by a hit-and-run accident, although the implications are quite different this time. And Tsukamoto’s trademark high-speed zoom effect, where he edits a series of stills together at breakneck speed to take the viewer on a roller-coaster ride, is again in play. But whereas in Iron Man the technique was used to create the cheesy but effectively unreal illusion of the Salaryman and the Fetishist racing through deserted city streets, here the rapid-fire cuts don’t lead us on a journey, but reveal only random, unconnected shots of skyscrapers skewed at various angles. The editing creates movement and pace, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Therein lies your metaphor for comparing the two films. Tsukamoto tries to endow this 21st century Tetsuo with more plot sense, but the movie ends up making less artistic sense. There is a basic (though logically unsatisfactory) b-movie schema to “explain” things this time out. Half-Japanese Anthony (the archetypal Salaryman is given a name for this outing, as part of the half-hearted attempt to relocate Tetsuo in our reality) has the misfortune of having inherited “android DNA” that will cause him to mutate into a man/killer machine hybrid if he gets angry enough. A paramilitary group is intent on assassinating him before he can learn to harness his power, while director Tsukamoto plays a mysterious figure whose goal is to goad Anthony into transforming into a human arsenal, both by threatening his family and by calling him “cowboy.” The result is many confusing, dimly lit battle scenes; missing, sadly, is the drill-bit penis and the rest of the dreamlike absurd humor of the original. Despite the action-movie architecture, the film is significantly strange, and someone coming to the series for the first time will definitely find it among the weirder movies they’ve encountered. Tsukamoto’s narrative technique—short dreamy scenes with dislocated conversations played over closeups of eyes or cityscapes, alternating with brief, hysterical flashbacks and flash-forwards and non sequitur images of gears or boiling coils—is disorienting, and the story, which doesn’t make a ton of sense to begin with, lurches forward in an oddball way. The ending makes no sense whatsoever, though I don’t mean that as a compliment this time. Visually, Tsukamoto is at the top of his game; he uses a desaturated, metallic gray palette (Anthony wears black and white suits and the transformation gives him what looks like a hard black plastic shell) and creates plenty of interesting industrial imagery. Editing is again a strong suit, and the clangy industrial soundtrack evokes a sense of postmodern dread. The “Bullet Man” monster is created with analog makeup, and while the original clinking, clanking, clattering abomination was scarier in unfocused black and white (the accumulation of metal machine parts was so complicated that your eyes could never really grasp exactly what the Iron Man looked like), the new, cleaner looking version has his bizarre charms (although he does look like he’s made of weapons grade plastic instead of gleaming gunmetal). Acting is a big minus—soft-spoken Akiko Monô frequently mumbles her already heavily accented English so that her dialogue is often lost, and star Eric Bossick is far too subdued for the delirious material. The main problem, however, is that changing the metamorphic metallic trigger from guilt to anger transforms the movie’s sensibility from surrealism to revenge movie silliness; whereas the original’s thoroughgoing weirdness earned it comparisons to Eraserhead, this remake plays more like a particularly incoherent episode of “The Incredible Hulk.”
Sadly, one of the most interesting aspects of Bullet Man is trying to figure out why Tsukamoto made the movie at all. It’s no improvement on the amazing original; it’s been changed enough to lose the magic, yet the treatment’s not different enough to give the remake an artistic reason to exist. The best guess is that the director was hoping to interest a new generation of Americans (those who would immediately reject anything in black and white with subtitles as unsuitable for viewing) in his Tetsuo mythology; after seeing this, maybe they’ll be intrigued enough to seek out the original. Or, less charitably, he may just be trying to milk some more money out of the fading franchise. The possibility that Bullet Man is the Tetsuo movie Tsukamoto would have made in 1989, if he had only had the necessary budget to realize his vision, is so horrifying that we refuse to entertain it.
The version reviewed here was the 72 minute edition from MPI Home Video; an 86 minute “directors cut” also exists.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: