The first three episodes of Bullet In The Face debut tonight on IFC at 10 p.m. Eastern. The second three air tomorrow, August 17, at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The spiritual spawn of Tony Soprano rule the cable roost, but it’s a rarity for viewers to laugh at a TV antihero. Sure, Walter White has his moments of levity, and Al Swearengen left behind entire volumes of profane bon mots. But the complexity of their personalities and the outcome of their decisions are the stuff of drama, catalysts for stories with tragic arcs and operatic stakes. What would happen if the characteristics that make for a classic television antihero—selfishness, control issues, violent tendencies, a general distrust of the people around them—were so exaggerated they curdled into comedy?
Bullet In The Face, the latest television project from Sledge Hammer! creator Alan Spencer, asks that question on a minute-by-minute basis. The show’s main character, Gunter Vogler (Max Williams), is downright loathsome: A professional killer on the payroll of crime boss Heinrich Tannhauser (Eddie Izzard), Gunter revels in the chaos he creates and the evil which he propagates throughout Bruteville, a “melting pot of crime” that’s part Paul Verhoeven, part Frank Miller, and all hellish. In the middle of a routine robbery, Gunter is betrayed by one of his own, sustaining the injury that gives the series its name (and, for three episodes, at least, a great running gag) that requires a full facial transplant. It’s a deliciously over-the-top turn of events that makes for something of a one-way variation on Face/Off: Gunter is given the Teutonic mug of one of Bruteville’s finest (who, conveniently, was killed by the show’s heavily accented antihero), and conscripted to serve on the police force, in the hopes of bringing an end to the gang war that’s tearing the city asunder. It’s a great setup; if they weren’t supposed to be funny, the very basic elements of Bullet In The Face would be a fount of unintentional hilarity.
It was exaggeratedly violent action-comedy that helped make Spencer’s name in the late 1980s, and more than two decades later, he knows all the right knobs to twist to push a megaplex-ready actioner into the realms of satire and parody. It helps that he found a cast prepared to chew through the dingy police headquarters and ornate hideaways that make up Bruteville. Williams is especially larger-than-life as Gunter, who, once he’s wearing a cop’s face, behaves like the Joker filling in for Bruce Wayne. As a series that’s a whole lot of id with a leavening dose of superego, Bullet In The Face makes its hamminess an asset, loosing the amplified onscreen presences of Izzard and Eric Roberts (playing Tannhauser’s rival don, Racken) on an environment that corresponds to their flamboyance. Most consistently enjoyable is the lantern-jawed Neil Napier as Hagerman, Gunter’s new partner (and the former partner/implied lover of the man who donated his face to Gunter) and the only cop on the force able to rise above the rampant corruption in Bruteville. Spencer writes Hagerman as the only Boy Scout among irredeemable delinquents, and Napier responds with a world-weary, gravel-voiced conviction that makes it feel as though a self-righteous grumble of “goddamnit” follows each of his lines. Appropriately, no one in Bruteville—especially Jessica Steen’s vixenish Commissioner Eva Braden—can stand the do-gooder in Hagerman.
In the years since Sledge Hammer!, Spencer developed a reputation as a go-to script doctor in Hollywood. As such, he knows from film tropes, which Bullet In The Face takes an infectious glee in tweaking, stretching, or subverting—when it doesn’t outright blow them up. Even with a modest budget, the show has the kinetic pacing and cool color palette of a contemporary action-thriller. Director Erik Canuel goes heavy on the Dutch angles in the three episodes presented tonight (in a curious programming choice that at least speaks to the cinematic qualities of Bullet In The Face, IFC is presenting the series in two 90 minute chunks), but since he’s doing so to parody overuse of the technique, it’s excusable.
Yet the series’ strongest challenge to standard action-movie operating procedure is the character of Gunter himself, a raging sociopath with whom the viewer is asked to laugh and for whom he or she is ostensibly rooting. Much like the protagonist of Sledge Hammer!, Gunter resembles one of The Expendables with the safety catch removed. He’s a morally compromised cartoon character, not above using his newly granted badge to his advantage—or, as seen in the first episode of the series, “Meet Gunter Vogler,” a weapon. It’s in that juxtaposition of good and evil that Bullet In The Face digs deepest for thematic resonance, though it does so with heavy hands: Gunter is, after all, a wolf in a sheep’s face. Just as the series is willing to play with audience perception and push the boundaries of what can be considered “heroic,” most of its characters have a secret wants and desires running beneath their surfaces. In the end, Tannhauser and Racken are the only characters allowed to be unambiguously villainous—which is all well and good, seeing as they’re the villains of the piece.
Though Bullet In The Face would benefit from having some space between its installments—watching all six in such short proximity highlights one major loose thread, involving the memories of Hagerman’s former partner—it’s for the best that the show landed on IFC. The network is increasingly cable’s go-to outlet for inventive, uncompromising comedy, and as such its viewers are less inclined to take an outlandishly violent show like this at, er, face value. But this is Tarantino-esque brutality: The blood is cherry Kool-Aid red, the gunplay frequent but not without consequence. It goes hand in hand with the jaundiced perspective and dark humor of the series, and at the end of such a dark summer in the real world (and at the end of a week that saw the debut of a military recruitment video disguised as a reality-competition series) it raises important questions about what we as TV viewers are comfortable watching and laughing at. Gunter is a deplorable human being, his actions frequently despicable, but within the heightened reality of Bullet In The Face, they can be funny—in an uncomfortable, “oh that’s not very funny and yet it is” way. Some men just want to watch the world burn; other men are the ones who knock. Bullet In The Face illustrates why we find such characters intriguing and where the line between fascination with an evil character and glorification of their actions is drawn. Sometimes, we laugh at them to avoid becoming them.