The tragedy of Mickey Rourke is not his failed mainstream career. Rather, it’s how he’s never been able to get any filmmakers of note involved in his vanity projects. Bullet‘s an incredibly ambitious, sensitive film… or, with the right production team, it would have been. What remains hints at what could have been–the film’s a character study, a comedy free American family drama (a rarity)–but Rourke’s inability to get notable filmmakers interested consigned it to direct-to-video status. Tupac Shakur’s name might have helped its commercial possibilities, but while Rourke is playing five years younger than his age, Shakur’s playing ten years older. It’s like Julien Temple forget to direct Shakur.
The film’s about three “families.” First and foremost is Rourke’s relationship with brothers Adrien Brody, Ted Levine and their parents. Someone coming home with Bullet, expecting a direct-to-video action shoot ’em up, would be bewildered by where the film goes in its first act, establishing this broken family unit. The film starts with Rourke’s release from prison, but Levine’s a Vietnam vet suffering from schizophrenia, while Brody’s a floundering painter. The film keeps returning to the family, showing these beautifully vulnerable moments–particularly Brody and Levine, but also parents Jerry Grayson and Suzanne Shepherd. Rourke and Shepherd have a wonderful scene together at the end of the second act. There’s a real attempt to take this potentially exploitative subject and give it agonizing depth. The film drowns the viewer in sadness.
There’s also Rourke’s friendship with John Enos III. Enos is a soap actor, but he’s kind of perfect in this film as a primping womanizer. (Enos also provides Bullet‘s only moments of comic relief). But as goofy as Enos gets–the scene listening to “I’m Too Sexy” would be perfect had Julien Temple not screwed up the end–Rourke approaches the friendship from this incredibly humanist perspective. Rourke’s character–the career drug addict who steals from family to score–occasionally reveals these startlingly beautiful moments of human regard. He and Enos have this one amazing scene.
The last relationship is the most problematic. Bullet is also supposed to be about childhood friends Shakur, Rourke and Matthew Powers all grown up, now competing in their respective criminal enterprises. Bullet only runs ninety-five minutes, so there really isn’t time for this subplot. It would work fine as character backstory, but it’s like no one told Shakur about it. His character makes absolutely no sense, which seems out of place for the film. So much of Bullet is about making the viewer understand why these people are they way they are (even if exact events aren’t described).
Besides Shakur, the big problem is Julien Temple. Bullet‘s highly stylized thanks to all Temple’s music video work and he can compose some fine shots. He just can’t string them together into a scene. His attempts at action scenes are awkward and painful to watch. The editor, Niven Howie, has to share some of the blame–there’s one particular scene when Brody runs into someone. The way Temple shot it and Howie edited it, it appears Brody aimed for the guy. Except… the script makes it clear he did not. So maybe Temple didn’t read the script either.
Rourke’s performance is outstanding, no shock, but Ted Levine’s better. His character could easily be too much, too cartoonish, but Levine makes him real. The scenes with Levine and Shepherd are just great.
I’ve seen Bullet a couple times before–and had the same reaction each time–but as time passes and American cinema abandons adult dramas… Rourke’s unfulfilled potential gets increasingly more tragic.