Mo' money, mo' problems
[Note: as an occasional completionist, I feel it is my duty to post-script my review of the first two Tetsuo films with a look at the widely reviled third. Detailed plot analysis and specifics follow.]
If Tetsuo and its sequel are films of unleashed, uncontrolled rage, the third film in the series is disappointingly restrained. Not that it is a complete departure from its predecessors (we still witness a man transforming into a cyborgian weapon of mass destruction), but this continues the comparative mellowing initiated by Body Hammer. Director Shinya Tsukamoto aims at an international audience, complete with a healthier budget than before and English language dialogue. The resulting film is wholly unsatisfying.
Again, the plot is mostly identical to Body Hammer (which itself was a minor remix of The Iron Man). Salaryman Anthony (Eric Bossick) is living in Tokyo, happily married to Yoriko (Akiko Mono) and father to a small child. He, naturally, begins to turn into a vengeful man-machine hybrid after the death of his son. He's pursued by a Guy - or, as he's affectionately referred to by fans, the Machine Fetishist - played by the director himself. So far, so Tetsuo. But even more so than its immediate predecessor The Bullet Man makes great efforts to explain and contextualise the violent metamorphosis, encompassing secret scientific installations, government conspiracy and good old fashioned father issues.
Therein lies the fundamental stumbling block of The Bullet Man. What impresses still about Tetsuo: The Iron Man is that its an irrational, visceral nightmare. A slice of pure cinema: almost silent in terms of dialogue, with the story told through visuals, sound effects and music. The transformation to machine is nonsensical, and that's exactly what lends it such manic energy. It is an avant-garde monster movie: more an abstract and disturbing assault on the senses than anything approaching a traditional narrative. Like Eraserhead before it, it's what happens when a filmmaker gleefully abandons reality and embraces a horrific fantasy word.
Body Hammer diluted some of the mysterious surrealism with a more accessible storyline, but it's nothing compared to the grievous crimes committed here. Bullet Man features some of the most appalling exposition and cliched storytelling imaginable. It attempts to rationalise the irrational, and in doing so transforms into something silly and disposable. If the three act structure was interesting or original, we could perhaps begin to forgive this newfound narrative normality, but alas its the stuff of Z-Movie sci-fi. There are vague themes in there (the whole series is arguably another riff on the challenges of commitment and fatherhood, previously explored so memorably in Eraserhead) but mostly it is a load of derivative bullshit. Gone is the violent eroticism and the unpredictable ultraviolence (a group of soldiers actually walk away from an encounter with the new Tetsuo, which would have been unthinkable in previous films).
More exasperating still is the decision to shoot in English language, which again would have been forgivable if actors who could actually speak English were hired. Bossick is one of the few native speakers, with a Japanese cast filling out the majority of other roles (tauntingly lapsing into their own mother tongue at seemingly random intervals). Their lack of fluency is evident throughout, and their delivery is inevitably unconvincing. As Tsukamoto is a fan of Japanese theatre, they're purposefully directed by the helmer to speak in a strange, cold and theatrical way. This also backfires, as the performances just come across as bad rather than eerily removed as intended. Endlessly clunky exposition further hampers the films' actors. In attempting to achieve international accessibility, Tsukamoto has inadvertently performed artistic seppuku.
And the icing on the shit cake? Bullet Man has a happy ending. A new ending in itself is not a cause for vitriol: given the familiarity of the core plot, some thoughtful revisions would have been welcome. In a series portraying joyless nightmares it is, however, a further fatal misstep. Tsukamoto even teases us in the last act with a scene of oddly-rendered apocalyptic destruction, but it's only a character's daydream. Anthony ultimately overcomes his blind rage and learns to control the inner machine (albeit after sort of melding with The Fetishist, who ambiguously lurks within our hero after being consumed by Tetsuo during the film's climax). The family seemingly live happily ever, and the film even jumps forward five years to ensure us of that. Compared with the giddily excessive and pessimistic punctuation marks of the first two films, it feels insincere and cheap.
There are a few winks and nods to fans of the original: the iconic title card returns, along with familiar music cues, epilepsy inducing montages and a handful of sequences of jittery stop-motion. While new HD photography is often less kind to the make-up and effects departments, the final form of the Bullet Man is every bit as impressive and insane as his metal forefathers. But mostly Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is a shadow of its predecessors, especially the first film in the series. Even the visuals are bland. The low-budget, inventive cinematography and raw creative energy of The Iron Man ensure it remains a compellingly bleak and visceral experience over two decades later. TBM is unworthy of such a legacy: tied to a financial and market leash, it is a work of lame restraint when its prequels have determined it should be a film of brute excess.