TV review: “Bullet in the Face”

If you are visiting this site, chances are you like noir. If you are a fan of Donald Westlake’s catalog beyond the Parker novels, there is a good chance you also like comic crime. But what if you combined noir and comic crime?

That’s just what happens in “Bullet in the Face,” a TV series that lasted for just one six-episode season but is available on video and streaming. Max E. Williams is Gunter Vogler, a murderous, sociopathic career criminal who works for Tannhauser (Eddie Izzard), one of two mafia kingpins fighting for control of Brüteville, a city in a not-too-distant  dystopian future that reminded me of the out-of-time world in Payback (there is anachronistic technology) and the run-down cities of 2012’s Dredd.

Gunter is grievously wounded during a jewelry-store robbery by, yes, a bullet in the face. When he wakes up, he finds that he has had cosmetic surgery, giving him the face of the cop that he killed during the robbery. To make matters even more complicated, he was given this surgery so that he could pretend to be this cop while having all of Gunter’s knowledge of the criminal underworld in order to take out the organizations of both Tannhauser, who betrayed him (after being betrayed himself…it’s complicated), and Tannhauser’s rival Racken (Eric Roberts). To make things ever more complicated, he is assigned as partner to Lt. Karl Hagerman (Neil Napier), the original partner of the cop Gunter killed in the jewelry heist, who needless to say has some negative feelings toward Gunter.

Got all that?

“Bullet in the Face” is the creation of Alan Spencer, probably best known for the ’80s cop comedy “Sledge Hammer!,” a show I deeply love. There are some resemblances to that show–there’s a crazy cop, his straight-laced partner, and their boss, and of course the humor comes from the same mind. But Sledge was confined by his sense of justice–he was largely inspired by the Dirty Harry archetype, the cop prevented from giving criminals their just desserts by The System. You never know what angle Gunter is playing–he loves to kill, his gangland mistress is pregnant and he scarily wants a child to raise to be like him, and he also strangely seems to relish solving crimes.

“Bullet in the Face” is hobbled out of the gate by attempting to cram a lot of plot points (I didn’t even summarize them all) and a complicated milieu into a half hour pilot, actually only twenty minutes after commercials and credits are factored in–it really could have used an hour premier. A lot of the jokes fall flat and some just left me scratching my head. On a personal level, I often had trouble understanding Gunter’s outrageous German accent. (This is a common problem for me as I have mild hearing loss–I also have a difficult time understanding Electra on Netflix’s “Daredevil.)

So with all that, I didn’t think the series was all that good. It was an unholy mess with an iffy hit-to-miss joke ratio.

But then there’s the fact that I sat down thinking I’d watch one episode to kill some time and ended up watching all six episodes in one sitting. It is strangely compelling, never boring, and definitely outrageous. And, for the most part, it’s the outrageous moments that work the best–it’s very gory and there’s a lot of explicit sexual humor, both of which are among the funniest elements of the show. This is not Dortmunder-style comic crime.

Unfortunately, the series ended just as it seemed to be hitting its stride. The world, the players, and their dynamics were established and the story was rolling, and then, BOOM! It’s over.

This is one of the few shows or movies that I didn’t care for on first viewing that I will probably watch again, because I have the feeling that some things that didn’t work for me on first viewing may work better now that I’ve been steeped in its universe for a bit. And I may do something I almost never do and give it a third spin with the commentary on, just because I know Alan Spencer is a funny guy (he has a cameo stealing a severed head) and I’d like to hear what was going through his head when he created something as strange and out-there as “Bullet in the Face.”

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