Chris's Disc Reviews

Bulletproof (1988)

A review of the DVD release by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time. Very few of them came anywhere close to this one.


Disk format: DVD 5

Region: 0

Directed by: Steve Carver

Starring: Gary Busey, Darlanne Fluegel, Henry Silva, Thalmus Rasulala, L. Q. Jones, René Enríquez

Occasionally the net picks up on a particular movie for no other reason than it has ideas above its station that it can't back up, or it has idiosyncracies that give it a particular appeal. In other cases, it's because the film is - well, to be blunt it's often because it's devastatingly awful. Which brings me to the 1988 action movie, Bulletproof. The person I have to thank for this cinematic experience is Graham Linehan, who blogged about it on his website recently, posting a YouTube link to the trailer with the comment "Gary Busey is dignity-proof." Sadly the trailer's no longer on YouTube, but take it from me: this is probably a Good Thing as far as you're concerned. I watched the trailer it with a growing sense of disbelief, and then immediately set about getting a copy of the film on DVD. It had that much of an effect on me.

The film tells us the story of maverick cop Frank "Bulletproof" McBain (Busey) and his quest to fight crime, rescue damsels in distress, avenge his buddy's killer, and mime playing the saxophone convincingly. I suspect this film might be the reason why the over-the-top action hero figure in the Simpsons is called McBain - there are distinct similarities.

What made me so desperate to see the film? Well, for one thing the trailer is so stuffed full of teeth-grindingly corny lines, overacting and sheer tackiness that you just know it's going to be dire on an epic scale. There's the shot of Gary Busey leaping into action from a warehouse gantry (he appears to have done all his own stunts, and from the looks of things he must have landed like a sack of potatoes); there are multiple explosions; there's the "tense" scene with the blonde ex-girlfriend and a hand grenade; there's a car chase; and then there are more multiple explosions. Every other line is hideously mistimed. And it's so badly shot that you start to realise that the film's got the potential to be something quite out of the ordinary. The question then becomes simple: the film's makers may be able to sustain maximum levels of naffness in a three minute trailer, but can they sustain it for a whole eighty-seven minutes? I had to find out.

So now I have my very own copy on DVD, and the answer is the one you wanted to hear: yes, they can!

Right from the start, the film sets about ticking every single box in the "eighties action flick" cliché checksheet, and does it so completely shamelessly that it transcends simple bad-moviedom and passes out the other side into something surreal. It's a prime candidate for those movie drinking games where you take a swig every time a well-worn trope hoves into view but believe me, it's a real challenge to spot them all. Many aren't so much references to other movies as shameless, blatant cribs and they come so thick and fast you'll be struggling to keep up - if you can stop laughing long enough, that is.

The special effects are gloriously wonky, the editing is all over the place, the supporting cast don't appear to be able to act, and the script obviously called for many sequences which the budget couldn't cover, but the director went ahead and shot them anyway. Maybe he thought they'd fix them in postproduction, or with Photoshop or something. It's difficult to tell.

But most of all, the reason I'm taking the time to write a review of a film that's over twenty years old is simple: it's down to the utterly committed performance by Gary Busey. At the time he made the film, he was a big star, having just completed filming his role as bad guy Joshua in Lethal Weapon. Once he started making Bulletproof he must have realised that the movie was a stinker, but he embraces the role with such relish that, dammit, he very nearly carries the whole thing off singlehandedly. You sit there watching, wondering how on earth he kept a straight face. My admiration for him has increased immensely after seeing this film, because he just gets on with the job and does what he can to enjoy the ride while he's there. Way to go, Gary. Way. To. Go.

Some of the laugh-out-loud, so-bad-they're-good points (I can't call them highlights, however much I try) are:

  • The garish, purple and blue opening titles, accompanied by a portentous synthesiser pad. Hmmm, are we going for the Miami Vice look here? If so, perhaps it's worth pointing out that Michael Mann probably wouldn't have superimposed them over a crane shot of the cheaper part of the Port of Los Angeles followed by a close-up of a stunt rat;
  • The opening shot dwells on a passing tugboat that turns out to be - well, a passing tugboat. It's nothing to do with the rest of the story and sadly, neither is the rat.
  • Busey goofing around with a cigarette in the car;
  • An opening ten minutes that so desperately wants to be a sequence from one of the Lethal Weapon movies (even down to the moody sax line on the soundtrack) that it's painful to behold;
  • Billy: "Here we go again."
  • Bad guy #1 (a baby-faced Danny Trejo, no less): "We have a deal; I just wish we had somebody good to shoot at!"
  • McBain: "Your worst nightmare, butt-horn!"
  • (After a spot of carnage) Paramedic: "How you doin' Billy?" Billy: "Ah, the usual. Missed a Patti LaBelle concert."
  • Billy's oxygen-sniffing habit.
  • The editing;
  • The general who holds a meeting where it's agreed that letting a military prototype fall into the hands of the enemy would be the one thing that they shouldn't do. He then, naturally, suggests that it's therefore the best plan of action - at this point I was willing one of the characters to say, "That's the *last* thing they'll expect!"
  • Overly gratuitous use of a flamethrower;
  • Clumsy flashbacks that, rather than making us empathise with Busey's character, make us wonder instead what drugs he's using, or maybe what drugs we're using;
  • The editing;
  • Action flick fave Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a thug - and he doesn't even get a namecheck!
  • Pretending to play a saxophone as metaphor for er, the writer's inability to write a romantic scene;
  • McBain's response when his former boss knocks on the door.
  • The editing;
  • The hokey sound effects - for example, listen for the wolf howling in the darkness as Busey walks across the car park to his helicopter rendezvous...
  • Busey making a "parachute drop" out of a Sikorsky Sea King (which was apparently painted with white emulsion, or perhaps it was poster paint) which is obviously parked on the flight line;
  • Blackburn saluting McBain after he's jumped out of the aircraft;
  • Kartiff: "He was a CIA pig! Death is his reward!"
  • McBain: "Bird season's over, butt-horn!"
  • The acting of absolutely any of the extras who are required to do anything other than fall over when they're shot;
  • René Enríquez (Lt Calletano from Hill Street Blues) chewing the scenery as the local military heavyweight;
  • McBain: "It's gonna be easier if I go in alone..."
  • The reappearance of the Sea King helicopter mentioned earlier, which has had the poster paint washed off and a pair of cardboard-and-plywood wings stuck on; Busey's character takes one look at it and knowledgeably identifies it as "an MI-24 Hind."
  • The Thunderblast, a high technology superweapon which appears to be controlled by a Commodore 64 and which doesn't appear to have been fitted with seat belts;
  • A "daring escape" which consists of Busey, tied to the side of an eight-foot cable drum, being blown up by a hand grenade dropped by his ex-girlfriend and rolling his way to freedom - this had me howling with laughter, which presumably wasn't the effect the director was going for;
  • "He cannot live long in that desert!" "Your people do, don't they?"
  • The less-than-subtle, verging-on-the-desperate directing which almost, but not quite, manages to disguise the fact that the budget didn't run to blowing up any of the army surplus military hardware being used by the bad guys;
  • The ex-girlfriend who only seems to be able to fire at the floor (presumably after being told to do so by the production gunsmith) but who still manages to wipe out an entire truck load of bad guys;
  • The editing;
  • Henry Silva shamelessly stealing every single scene he's in, despite having outrageously corny lines and a combat jacket that was several sizes too small;
  • William Smith's Russian General being completely upstaged by his own hat, which becomes mesmerising in its oversized, inky black furriness;
  • The ending;

...and just about everything else.

The editing is, frankly, bizarre. The editor doesn't appear to have learned that you cut the soundtrack at a different point to the visuals to ease in to the next scene. The movie lurches along from moment to moment; a take will suddenly end, slamming us in to the next sequence so abruptly that it becomes quite hard work to keep your attention on the action.

There are several instances where we get the set up, and we see the aftermath, but we aren't actually shown what happened in between. One example of this is where Sergeant O'Rourke causes a distraction so Shephard can grab a hand grenade (it's about the only useful thing he does in the entire movie). We're shown a close-up of a neatly stacked box of grenades, and a shot of O'Rourke edging forwards, but then Shephard is kneeling on the floor picking a grenade from a pile that have been spilled out. How did they get there? We aren't shown. Either the director forgot to shoot it, or the editor thought it wasn't important enough that he needed to show us. It's hard to fight the temptation to keep rewinding as you watch, because there are so many moments where you find yourself thinking, "What just happened? What did I just miss?" The writing is unbelievably lazy. Characters frequently ask why they aren't doing x, where x would be the sensible course of action. They then accept being fobbed off with nothing more a flinty-eyed glare (presumably the screenwriter had no idea either) or, even better, like this:

Sgt. O'Rourke:

"Well, my gut feeling, I'd just fly in and frag the hell out of them, Sir!"

General Gallo:

"It's not quite that simple, Sergeant..."

It never is, General, it never is...

Sometimes the exposition takes the hand-wavy, look-it-up-yourself approach:

General Gallo:

"Gentlemen, you can turn on the six o'clock news and see more about our status as a world power than I could tell you. The point is, the threat that we're dealing with is close. Too close to home."

(Eh? There's a threat? Did I miss a memo?) At other times, the plot isn't so much advanced as deluged with every conceivable possibility:

Miles Blackburn:

"We recently confirmed the presence of enemy forces just three hundred miles south of our border."

Sgt. O'Rourke:


Miles Blackburn:

"Cubans, Nicaraguans, ay-rabs, revolutionaries, Sergeant. Terrorists, being trained for use not only within Mexico but eventually up here in Gringo-land."

Ah, the all-encompassing, throw everything in and see what sticks method. At least extraterrestrials weren't involved; thanks for clearing that one up, agent Blackburn. When all else fails, the writers just rummage about in the old cliché box, like this:


"Now can we call for backup?"


"What, and spoil all the fun?"

Or this:

General Brogado:

"What kind of fool would dare to come here?"

Colonel Kartiff:

"Don't worry. He is just one man."

We are clearly meant to hate Colonel Kartiff (Silva) right from the start. Unfortunately, the ruthless nature of his character is rather undermined by the fact that he doesn't actually have the balls to do anything when the chips are down:

Devon Shepard:

(Does some jiggery pokery with a control panel and electrocutes one of the bad guys climbing on the Thunderblast)

Colonel Kartiff:

(Slowly walks across to her, draws his gun, and aims it at her head)

"By Allah, you will die for this!"

Devon Shepard:

"Your men killed the only technician who knew the right access codes!"

Colonel Kartiff:

"I despise women like you."

(Flounces off in a huff)

Given that last line, consider Brogado's opinion of the Colonel, which he expresses a bit later on in the film:

General Brogado:

"You and your weakness for women!"

On the other hand, the aforementioned Sergeant O'Rourke is introduced as a by-the-book, career military hardass along the lines of R. Lee Ermey, but he appears to be entirely useless in combat, stands idly by when there's an opportunity to fight, and is eventually blown up with a couple of nuns (I'm serious).

Then there are the many characters in the movie who are introduced, get a few minutes in front of the camera, and are never seen or heard from again. There's Thalmus Rasulala as Billy, the buddy cop, filling in for Danny Glover for the first ten minutes and then disappearing for good (and hopefully a role in a better film); there's Lydie Denier as the eye-candy girlfriend who appears in various states of undress for a few minutes (if you were sufficiently geeky you could argue that was an homage to Adele Yoshioka's similar appearance in Magnum Force, but it's a bit of a stretch...) Then there are all the members of the speacial forces team accompanying the Thunderblast who are summarily blown up or arbitrarily shot at random intervals (and that's got to be worth a drinking game by itself). Most mystifying of all, though, is Special Agent Blackburn (R. G. Armstrong). Although he sets everything in motion and is clearly signalled as the man behind the whole operation, once he's waved McBain off in the helicopter, he's never seen again; I get the impression that the writers just forgot about him. Or maybe they confused him with somebody else. I guess we'll never know.

The suggestion about coming up with a decent drinking game to help you make your way through this movie is not one I make lightly. But this DVD really isn't the sort of film you'd want to watch while you're sober. Nevertheless, if you stick with it, at the end of an hour and a half you'll have a wealth of new profundities to ponder. Like how movies this bad ever get made, for one thing. And what to do with the hangover you'll no doubt be suffering from tomorrow morning.

And the rating? That's a tough one. It's a crap movie, but it's so amazingly, devastatingly bad that I reckon it's a five-star crap movie. Minus five stars? Yeah, that'll work.

Chris's Rating: Minus five stars.

I watched this movie so you don't have to, and you're unlikely to want to unless you're a student of the far side of movie making. If you get something out of bad films, and you have an opportunity to see it, don't pass this one up. You'll be talking about it for weeks.

Probably to your therapist.

Back to Chris's Films Page