Review: Bruiser (15) / Director: George A. Romero / Screenplay: George A. Romero / Starring: Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Tom Atkins / Release date: Out Now
At last - George A. Romero’s Bruiser finally gets a UK DVD release this month. Filmed in 1999, Bruiser received a limited theatrical release in America – courtesy of Lionsgate – and since then has only been available on US disc. No theatrical showing in the UK at all and twelve years until a UK DVD release. To say StudioCanal – who also financed the film - have been dragging their feet is something of an understatement! Better late than never, I suppose. So, has it been worth the wait? Well, yes and no…
Anyone expecting a living dead gorefest is going to be disappointed. Bruiser sees Romero in psychological thriller-mode, following in the footsteps of his earlier Martin (1977), Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993), and it is arguably the weakest of the four films.
Brit actor Jason Flemyng plays Henry Creedlow, a doormat junior executive working for a voguish fashion magazine called Bruiser. Henry’s wife despises him and is having an affair with his boss (played in true scenery chomping style by Peter Stormare). She is also diddling Henry out of his money in cahoots with his best friend, who is his financial advisor. To make matters worse, Henry lives in a half-finished house that he can’t afford to complete. Henry, in other words, has a big letter ‘L’ stamped on his forehead and feels that everyone is robbing him of his identity. Then one morning he wakes to find his face literally gone, replaced with a featureless white mask (think George Franju’s 1959 classic Les Yeux San Visage). With his identity fully erased, and anonymity in its place, Henry is free to exact revenge on those who wronged him.
Bruiser is the last of Romero’s thrillers to date that explores the theme of the ‘monster within’. It also falls within his patchy ‘middle period’ – a fairly fallow time in the 1990s (after his split from Laurel producer Richard Rubenstein and before his return to zombies with Land of The Dead) that saw Romero idling in Hollywood development hell, producing only three films in twenty years. The problem is that Bruiser lacks the claustrophobic suspense that provided the framework for Monkey Shines and The Dark Half. We don’t fear for Henry the way we did for Allan Mann (the paraplegic held to ransom by his psychically-bonded psychotic killer monkey in Monkey Shines) or even Thad Beaumont (the hero haunted by his murderous ‘dark-half’, George Stark). Bruiser lacks these strong villains of Monkey Shines and The Dark Half. Instead Romero goes for the romantic anti-hero approach that he used in Martin, trying to make Henry into a Phantom of the Opera or a Darkman, but he doesn’t really succeed there either.
Part of Bruiser’s problem is its uneven tone. There are places where it seems like it wants to go giallo – and it does at times resemble an Argento movie – especially when Henry stalks his victims and dispatches them in novel ways (shades also of Dr Phibes). Then there is Tom Atkins (The Fog, Escape from New York) as a veteran cop pursuing Henry. His scenes play like a 1950s cop movie thanks to Romero’s hokey dialogue that has Atkins referring to ‘dames’. Knowing Romero’s love of old movies this was probably deliberate but the effect jars. As for the final section of Bruiser which takes place in a masked ball, Eyes Wide Shut did it better (and that’s not saying much).
On the plus side, Bruiser looks amazing, and marked a step-forward for Romero as a director, visually. Adam Swica’s cinematography captures the noir-ish undertones of the story, and the production design is one of Romero’s all-time best. It’s all stylish clutter in luxury apartments and swanky offices, underlining perfectly the emptiness of Henry’s affluent but soul-less world.
Back then to my original question: was it worth the wait? If you are a Romero completist you will definitely want Bruiser for your collection (although you’ll probably have the US disc already) - if only to complete the trilogy of his 1990s thrillers. Otherwise I’d advise to proceed with caution. There are rewards in Bruiser (it also has a great jazz soundtrack by Donald Rubenstein) but you might find yourself, as I did, having to dig for them.