Cast: Max Williams, Neil Napier, Jessica Steen, Kate Kelton, Eddie Izzard, Eric Roberts
It isn’t often when a production company markets its projects as “a show like you’ve never seen before” that it actually turns out to be true. You can definitely say this about IFC’s six episode series Bullet in the Face, written by cult icon Alan Spencer (Sledge Hammer!). It is such an eclectic mix of sitcom, action, noir, and camp that it is difficult to think of anything remotely comparative. It has all the snappy dialogue of a sitcom, with all the real life danger of an action movie, the overwrought emotions of a noir thriller, and the over-the-top acting and situations of a John Waters camp-fest, wrapped in all the cinematic style of a slick, high budget film.
It is easy to see how a series like this might be off-putting to anyone expecting the predictable situational yuks and laugh-track artificiality of a typical sitcom. However, if you are prepared to accept the show as it comes – the incongruous styles, the improbable storylines, blood and gore coupled with slapstick violence – Bullet in the Face is a truly unique joy to watch, and a viewing experience that you won’t soon forget.
The series is about a psychotic criminal named Gunter Vogler (Max Williams). During a botched robbery, he shoots and kills a cop before being betrayed by his secret girlfriend Martine (Kate Kelton) who shoots him in the face. Gunter awakes three months later in a hospital and in police custody. Police Commissioner Eva Braden (Jessica Steen) and Lt. Karl Hagerman (Neil Napier) inform him that a face transplant has been performed and that he’s been given the face of the policeman he killed, forcing him to work for the police to bring down the crime lords, Tannhauser (Eddie Izzard) and Racken (Eric Roberts), who are waging an escalating gang war across the city of Brütteville.
This gives Gunter the chance to get revenge on those who betrayed him. At the same time, relationships are complicated by the fact that a sado-masochistic sociopath is walking around with Braden and Hagerman’s dead comrade’s face. Braden harbors aggressive romantic feelings toward the dead cop, while Hagerman was carrying on a complicated affair with his fallen partner. Meanwhile, Martine is pregnant and is hedging her bets by playing both Tannhauser and Racken, intending to find safety with the victor of the war.
It’s no secret that this is an extremely off-beat series. While it is an extremely funny show, many people were shocked by the extreme violence and character death in a series labeled as a sitcom. In my own opinion, the raised stakes and shock value of the violence heighten the comedy. Another complaint about the show was the extreme attitude of the lead character, the psychopathic criminal Gunter Vogler. Many viewers disliked having an anti-hero as the lead of a sitcom, even though anti-heroes like Walter White or Hannibal Lecter are acceptable in dramas.
Of course, much of the comedy arises from Gunter’s dedication to criminal violence and his sociopathic, maniacal tendencies. So much of his behavior is so extreme and ridiculous, that even if you didn’t laugh at him, you’d probably laugh at the other character’s reaction to him. Max Williams is absolutely perfect as the unpredictable, capricious, decadently German Gunter. He knows how to play over-the-top without seeming absolutely cartoony, and everything he does – every gesture, every glance, every syllable, every gunshot – is deliciously compelling and enjoyable to watch. His perfect balance comes in the form of Neil Napier’s Lt. Hagerman.
He has all the intensity, self-righteousness, and nobility of Law & Order’s Christopher Meloni, with a penchant for breaking down in tears. The cast is rounded out by two magnificent performances by Eric Roberts and Eddie Izzard as Brutteville’s competing crime lords. Roberts plays it old-school gangster with a sadistic twist. He kills his henchmen with an uneconomical abandon – not reckless, but nonchalant. Izzard adds his trademark eccentricity to the already eccentric Tannhauser, contributing absurdist improvised material that enhances the excellently funny script.
The Shout!’s DVD release of Bullet in the Head preserves the beautiful, cinematic look of the show and all the style of the production. There’s a convenient “watch all” option that more or less replicates the cinematic feel of the series, minus the interruption of the freakishly catchy opening titles.
The only special feature is the audio commentary by writer/producer Alan Spencer, which is well worth a listen. Spencer has been writing for TV since his mid-teens and befriended many great comedians (Marty Feldman, Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks, Andy Kauffman) during that time. He knows his job and the television industry like no one else, and has many interesting anecdotes – not only about the making of the show, but about many great comedy icons. His sense of humor is just as off-beat as the show, but also perhaps just as entertaining. According to the commentary, it was a highly efficient shoot and not much for deleted scenes or outtakes were available for a special features selection.
Overall, the DVD set is well worth the money for a uniquely entertaining and blazingly smart television show the likes of which we’re not likely to see again – but if you’re looking for extra features, you may as well just buy the episodes online and save the money.