‘Bull’ Huffs And Puffs, But Doesn’t Quite Blow The House Down: Review

‘Bull’ Huffs And Puffs, But Doesn’t Quite Blow The House Down

After being left for dead by those closest to him, Neil Maskell’s titular enforcer embarks on a brutal and bloody quest for retribution in Paul Andrew Williams’ taut gangland thriller.


“Where have you been?” queries an unseen driver during an illegal firearms deal. “Hell” responds his passenger, the eponymous Bull, as they stalk the shadowy backstreets of London’s suburban underworld. In a matter of moments, Bull has promptly purchased the weapon, exited the vehicle and fired three bullets into an unsuspecting victim before callously throwing the gun back into the car and walking away. This arresting opening sequence immediately sets the relentless pace of Bull, a vicious, visceral but somewhat limited low-budget vengeance flick from British director Paul Andrew Williams.

Thought dead for more than a decade, the assassination marks Bull’s return to the streets of Dartford where he once worked as a brutally efficient enforcer for his father-in-law — cold-blooded gang lord Norm (David Hayman). As Bull’s marriage to smack-addict Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt) began to spiral though, a dispute broke out over who should be granted full custody of the couple’s beloved son, Aiden (Henri Charles). Amid rising tensions, Norm (and thus the rest of the gang) took Gemma’s side in the feud. Inevitably, violence was the only resolution. Fragmented flashbacks imply Maskell’s protagonist was left to burn in a blazing caravan by his former friends and family, betrayed by the same people he used to barbeque with. But now — inexplicably — Bull is back for revenge, and he plans to butcher every last one of them.

At the heart of this frenetic retribution narrative are two remarkable lead performances from Maskell and Hayman. Rarely raising his voice, the Scot is stony-eyed and genuinely chilling in his portrayal of the wicked patriarch Norm. At one point, Bull’s mother even has to ask Norm to stop looking at her, such is the penetrative intensity of his glassy stare. Whilst not especially violent — he has goons to do that for him — Norm is as black-hearted as they come. Equally terrifying in a different manner, Maskell’s characterisation of Bull is more in the vein of his previous work: terse, aggressive, physically imposing, and ultimately extremely captivating.

All the fat is cut clean off Bull, leaving only a lean narrative populated entirely by mean individuals.

The obvious point of reference here may be Maskell’s role as hitman Jay in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), however this performance is also reminiscent of his turn as raisin-loving assassin Arby in Channel 4’s cult thriller Utopia (2013-14). Like Arby, Bull is relentless. And brutal. In an echo of No Country For Old Men’s (2007) coin-flipping psychopath Anton Chigurh, Bull’s thirst for blood and justice simply becomes an inevitable fate for the rest of the film’s characters. Word of his return is whispered around the town like a local folk story, almost mythic in the fear it strikes into the gang members who learn of Bull’s presence. “I’m the big bad wolf” he growls at the young children of his former peer, Beardy (David Nellist), confirming his status as the menacing predator in this Grimm gangland tale. All of this is facilitated by the sheer intensity of Maskell’s performance, which counterpoints the ice-cold evil of Hayman’s Norm to great effect.

To match the unrelenting fierceness of his central protagonist, Williams directs with a taut efficiency that doesn’t allow the audience to escape from Dartford’s murky underworld for more than a moment at a time. All the fat is cut clean off Bull, leaving only a lean narrative populated entirely by mean individuals. As with his similarly gritty first feature London to Brighton, Williams intercuts between past and present in order to achieve this, gradually revealing essential plot information to the viewer whilst keeping them hooked with the explosive violence of Bull’s retribution mission.

Also impressive is Williams’ use of location: the concrete pavements and grey skies of working-class London estates help to establish a stripped-down socio-realist aesthetic, whilst several scenes in a dingy neon-lit fairground add sinister swirls of purple, green and blood red to the film’s gloomy colour palette.

Whilst the film is certainly not all surface and set pieces, there doesn’t appear to be the sufficient thematic development to make Bull’s sharp horns really pierce you.

Blood, in fact, is perhaps the central motif of Bull; both in the bodily and familial sense. The former appears in spates, with Williams’ camera not shying away from the teeth clenching gore of an impaled kneecap or bloody arm-stump. Bull’s penchant for slasher-style limb dismemberment means the film constantly teeters between criminal thriller and full-blown horror, displaying both the ruthlessness of a traditional gangster picture and all the blood-spattering of a Halloween movie. Not one for the squeamish then, but if you’re looking for a ninety minute burst of adrenaline, there is no doubt Williams and Maskell deliver.

It is somewhat disappointing therefore that Bull cannot seem to build upon this formidable sensorial base. Whilst the film is certainly not all surface and set pieces, there doesn’t appear to be the sufficient thematic development to make Bull’s sharp horns really pierce you. Rarely, for example, does Williams interrogate the moral nuances of his characters; can we really empathise with a central protagonist who euthanised his own mother with cold indifference? In his desire for vengeance, is Bull not also helping to perpetuate the tautological cycle of gangland violence that has led his son to become a homeless junkie? These are questions that Williams doesn’t (and probably didn’t have the financial scope to) ask or answer. In one sense, this benefits Bull as it doesn’t attempt anything that may slow down the propulsive rhythm of its breakneck narrative. Upon repeat viewing however, it is clear that the film’s lack of critical exploration results in a less rewarding and engaging experience that diminishes further and further as the adrenaline wears off. As admirably rampant as Williams’ Bull is then, it is a shame that in the end it only sees red.

The Verdict

Compelling central performances and unrelenting violence drive Williams’ best work since his debut. Bull certainly provides a gripping cinematic experience for an hour and a half, but is ultimately prevented from becoming truly memorable by a lack of thematic development.

Words by Will Jones

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