Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams.
Starring Neil Maskell, David Hayman, and Tamzin Outhwaite.
Bull mysteriously returns home after a 10 year absence to seek revenge on those who double crossed him all those years ago.
Paul Andrew Williams’ first theatrical feature since 2012’s Song for Marion – which was nothing if not an unexpected gear-shift for the director – offers a return to the ultra-violent crime fare he’s better known for. Familiar but well-executed, Bull succeeds thanks to its lean pace, uncommonly nasty violence, and a top-drawer performance from genre vet Neil Maskell.
Williams sure doesn’t mess around from the jump, his film opening with former gang enforcer Bull (Maskell) returning from a decade in exile and setting about systematically destroying those who put him there, working his way through a criminal network in pursuit of his kingpin father-in-law Norm (David Hayman). Bull’s ultimate goal, though, is to retrieve his estranged son Aiden, whose life has been ruined by his junkie ex-wife.
Bull‘s opening scenes matter-of-factly depict Bull violently murdering several of Norm’s associates who were responsible for incapacitating Bull a decade prior, sending him to “Hell,” as he puts it. The violence is merciless in its brutality, both Bull’s act and Williams’ depiction, but perhaps the real takeaway is the nerve-jangling fear with which Bull’s various victims regard him. They’re terrified that he managed to survive such an emphatically debilitating incident 10 years earlier, and well aware of the annihilation imminently coming their way.
Whether Bull is chopping a man’s arm off and cauterising it on a hob or taking a target for a deranged ride at the fairground, it’s refreshing to watch a film so un-sentimental and utilitarian in its portrayal of violence. Bull doesn’t care if those who wronged him are women or have now settled down with kids; he’s on a hell-bent spirit quest to dismantle everyone who ruined his life.
It’s just as well, because outside of the violence, Bull is a relatively generic crime yarn as the title character follows the blood-soaked breadcrumbs towards his end-boss father-in-law. There are certainly other genre elements floating around in the periphery, the full extent of which is only unveiled deep into the pic’s third act, though some may feel that this aspect is ultimately deployed too late to be effective or taken seriously.
But it’s Maskell, who has been an impressively intense presence in Brit cinema ever since Kill List 10 years ago, that truly holds the film together at all times. Portraying a quietly menacing merchant of death, Maskell makes potentially daft lines like “I’ll cut you from bollock to arse” land with terrifying dread. As his nemesis norm, vet character actor David Hayman is meanwhile a gravel-voiced delight, prone to switch from joviality to psychopathy at a moment’s notice.
Williams’ technical presentation is solid throughout – especially his reliance on impactful close-ups of Maskell’s face – and elevated by James Taylor’s sharp editing, keeping the runtime trim at a mere 88 minutes. The constant cross-cutting between past and present does however occasionally prove confusing given the lack of visual signifiers differentiating each time period. Locations featured throughout have a day-to-day banality to them that makes the story feel that much more grounded and real, as is especially important later on.
Bull doesn’t really have anything new or unique to say about the hollowness of revenge, though its third act parlour trick should if nothing else rouse considerable debate, and prompt those who enjoyed the experience enough to rewatch it through an entirely different lens. Audiences couldn’t really be blamed for finding its late-film turn a bit jarring, though.
Bull offsets its formulaic trappings – and an ending sure to divide – with its ruthlessly efficient pacing, gut-wrenching violence, and a typically compelling Neil Maskell performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.