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D: George A. Romero / 95m

Cast: Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Leslie Hope, Nina Garbiras, Andrew Tarbet, Tom Atkins, Jonathan Higgins, Jeff Monahan, Marie V. Cruz, Beatriz Pizano

Henry Creedlow (Flemyng) is one of Life’s true put-upons. Married to a woman, Janine (Garbiras), who no longer loves him, Henry fares no better at work, where he’s a mid-level executive for a magazine called Bruiser. The magazine’s owner is a sleazy mini-despot called Miles Styles (Stormare). Styles chides and insults and derides his staff, and acts as if they’re all inconsequential in comparison to himself. Henry is friends with Miles’ wife, Rosemary (Hope), who works as a photographer at the magazine; she’s unhappy because she knows that Miles is sleeping around at every opportunity. What neither of them knows though is that Miles is having an affair with Janine. At a party at Miles’s house, Henry sees his wife in a compromising situation with Miles and he confronts her about it afterwards. Janine is dismissive of his feelings and berates him for being “nothing” and “a nobody”. The next morning, Henry discovers something terrible: his face is covered by a white mask similar to the one Rosemary made, only he can’t remove it.

The mask has a strange effect on Henry. At first he hides from their maid, Katie (Pizano), until he sees her stealing money from his wallet. When he confronts her it’s a different story from the night before, and later, when he overhears Janine arranging to meet Miles, he follows her to the Bruiser offices. Rosemary is also there and she catches Miles and Janine in the act. After she leaves, and while Miles chases after her, Henry deals with Janine in his own way. The police become involved, and it’s not long before they’re looking for Henry, who is righting all the wrongs that have been done to him in the past. Finally, the only one who’s left is Miles. At a company party that Henry has arranged, he stalks his boss while the police come ever closer to catching him.

The movie that always slips past unnoticed whenever there’s any discussion of George A. Romero’s career, Bruiser was the last feature he made before returning exclusively to the world of zombies (with 2005’s Land of the Dead). It was also the first movie he made away from Pittsburgh. It’s certainly an odd movie, a French/Canadian/US co-production that’s a valiant attempt by Romero to do something out of the ordinary. That it doesn’t succeed entirely is perhaps not so surprising, as Romero’s ambition is stifled by budgetary constraints and an allegorical narrative that likely seems far more heavy-handed than he originally intended. Romero was well used to working with limited budgets – something which is sorely in evidence here – and Bruiser is one of those times when he was forced to work with some very strict, prescribed resources. But there are problems too with Romero’s script, and though he’s on top of the material, the plot takes several short cuts on its way to a less than satisfying conclusion.

The worm-has-turned scenario that Romero adopts lacks subtlety throughout, but as the movie progresses it becomes clear that Romero isn’t too concerned with how sophisticated his narrative is, or how it might be perceived. Henry’s aggrieved nature is the central focus here, and Romero signals this through a series of fantasy sequences where Henry imagines killing the people who upset him. These are the movie’s most extreme moments, designed to illustrate the depth of Henry’s pain at being ignored or belittled, and Romero stages them with gusto, hinting at the possibility that Henry has psychotic tendencies, a mental health problem that can’t be solved just by his being assertive or regaining his self-confidence. This gives the early scenes an edge as the viewer tries to work out just what it will be that will push Henry over the edge. And then comes that mask…

The mask is an amazing creation, and it proves eerie to look at no matter how many times we see it. But as an allegory, or a motif, for how Henry is regarded by his peers it’s a little too obvious, though still highly effective. Behind it, Flemyng is required to give a portrayal that’s mostly about body language – each time he angles his head he’s giving the viewer a very good idea of what he’s thinking or feeling – and his vocal performance, laced with a wicked, black humour, relays the various new emotions Henry is feeling with poise and precision. It’s a confident, nuanced performance, even when the script pushes things closer to melodrama than is required, and Flemyng, whose skill as an actor is often overlooked, keeps Henry from becoming just another revenge-happy psycho with a permanent axe to grind. Romero may occasionally let him down when it comes to some of the dialogue, but Flemyng avoids a few obvious bear traps and is consistently good throughout.

Less successful is Stormare’s over the top turn as Miles. Given free rein to chew the scenery and anything else in reach, Stormare is like a bull in a china shop, pushing the limits of his character’s hedonism in terms of words if not thankfully, deeds (the sight of him in what suspiciously look like spanks is another of the movie’s “highlights”). He’s like a pantomime villain, but one that you can’t take seriously, and Stormare at least is wise to this, and imbues Miles with a requisite lack of self-awareness. It’s a showy, breathless performance, but it does work well against Flemyng’s more measured portrayal. Sadly, Hope and Garbiras aren’t afforded quite so well rounded characters to play, with Hope stranded as Henry’s potential true love interest, and Garbiras stuck with being an admittedly very attractive, but dislikeable shrew.

As a thriller, the movie has its moments, and Romero still knows how to set up a compelling murder scene, but the setting for the movie’s conclusion, a Bacchanale party that features the band, The Misfits, gets away from him, and it’s undermined by some injudicious editing courtesy of Miume Jan Eramo. Better in terms of understanding what Romero is looking for is Adam Swica’s low-level camerawork which heightens Henry’s sense of displacement, and long-time collaborator Donald Rubinstein’s energetic, jazz-based score. In the end, Bruiser isn’t able to overcome many of the problems that hold it back from being an accomplished and entertaining diversion, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation might suggest.

Rating: 6/10 – a low-key yet mostly absorbing outing from a director who was never fully allowed to make the movies he wanted to make (and how he wanted to make them), Bruiser is a movie whose potential can be glimpsed throughout, even though it’s not been achieved fully; aided by a great performance from Flemyng, the movie does its best to provide a compelling narrative, but too many stumbles along the way make too much of a difference – unless you can forgive Romero for lacking the wherewithal to achieve greater things. (17/31)