Producers: Sarah Gabriel, Marc Goldberg, Leonora Darby, Mark Lane and Dominic Tighe Director: Paul Andrew Williams Screenplay: Paul Andrew Williams Cast: Neil Maskell, David Hayman, Tamzin Outhwaite, Elizabeth Counsell, Kevin Harvey, Lois Brabin-Platt, David Nellist, Jason Milligan, Henri Charles and Matthew Castle Distributor: Saban Films
British gang movies are often notably brutal, but Paul Andrew Williams’ “Bull,” which adds a revenge motif (as well as a dollop of the supernatural), proves a particularly violent example. Grimly efficient but rather repellent, it features a protagonist about as antiheroic as you can imagine.
Bull (Neil Maskell) is a man on a mission—to methodically terminate the people who separated him from Aidan (Henri Charles), the son, as we see in periodic flashbacks, he dearly loved. Bull is a glowering, unforgiving man—an avenging devil, you might say—who leaves one victim stabbed to death while duct-taped in a chair before eliminating his sobbing wife, and has a boy call out his father to the street, where he plunges a knife into the poor fellow’s mouth. These follow a more mundane prologue in which Bull acquires a gun and a few bullets and promptly uses them to kill some unspecified targets in a garage—the rare instance in which the act is filmed from a distance and not up-close and gory.
That’s only the beginning of his rampage, which is sporadically interrupted not only by flashbacks to the time he spent with Aidan—at home or fishing, but mostly on trips to a local amusement park and arcade—but by others showing his relationship with his boss, cruel mob chieftain Norm (David Hayman), whose daughter Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt) he married. Though Bull was a loyal, vicious cog in Norm’s crime machine (he happily lops off the fingers of a butcher who refuses to sign a document agreeing to buy Norm’s products—he has a penchant for chopping off limbs), the marriage turned out to be an unhappy one: Gemma was a heroin addict.
Yet Norm would refuse his “lassie” nothing whatever her faults, and when Bull tried to take Aidan away from her uncertain care, granddad stepped in mercilessly. Exactly how he handled the problem is doled out bit by bit in yet more flashbacks to a caravan fire, but an opening shot of shadowy figures patting down a newly-dug grave in the middle of a field is a fair indication.
Now, as his confederates are being summarily murdered, Norm dismisses reports that Bull is back and begins searching for the actual culprit. His methods are casually callous, as when he pressures Bull’s aged mother (Elizabeth Counsell) for information. But nothing can stop Bull, and eventually all his enemies—some only indirectly related to his grievances—meet gruesome fates, including Norm and Gemma, and Bull is reunited with Aidan (now played, if only briefly, by Matthew Castle).
After what he’s shown us, Williams can’t devise a really satisfactory ending for his exercise in ultra-violence, and though he brings the story full-circle back to the first shot, it’s easy to scoff at how he does so as a cop-out.
But trying to parse “Bull” in terms of logic and realism is a thankless task. Its raison d’être, quite frankly, lies in the gruesome succession of punishments Bull metes out (one, involving a big knife and a carnival ride, is so prolonged that it becomes stomach-churning) and the graphic way Williams and his cinematographers Ben Chads and Vanessa Whyte have staged them and James Taylor has edited them. Certainly both Maskell and Hayman create very scary characters, the former bluntly (when he introduces himself to some kids as the Big Bad Wolf, he’s not far off, given his huffing and puffing) and the latter in quieter, menacing mode, masking his evil in cunning smiles. The budgetary limitation show in George Syborn’s stark production design, and Raffertie’s score works itself up without adding much.
This is a grisly piece of work, not so much frightening as unsettling, and as likely to repulse as entertain—except for those who like their cinematic revenge served dripping in blood and body parts. But you have to admit that, for better or worse, it does quite ably what it sets out to do.