Bull (2021) Review
Bull was directed and written by Paul Andrew Williams (Unfinished Song, Cherry Tree Lane) and stars Neil Maskell (Open Windows, Kill List), David Hayman (Macbeth, Eye of the Needle), Kevin Harvey (Salvage, Treason), Lois Brabin-Platt (The Bezonians, Original Gangster), and Tamzin Outhwaite (EastEnders, Great Expectations). It’s about an ex-mob enforcer coming back to his hometown to seek revenge on those who crossed him 10 years ago.
The Plot: Revenge plots have been a dime a dozen commodity in the action and thriller genres for decades, and there’ll be no stopping that anytime soon. With that level of quantity, the average quality drops significantly, but with experience and knowledge of the tropes, Williams has made an adept version of a longstanding tale.
Williams makes the lack of pretensions clear from the first moment of real runtime, watching “Bull” (Maskell) purchase a revolver from an old acquaintance in his car and immediately get out and kill a man. Coy isn’t a word that should come remotely close to the way that the movie lays out its story. After another pitstop to kill old friends, we find out that Bull is out to find Aiden, and with two grisly deaths happening in the same night, Bull’s former colleague Gary (Harvey), old boss Norm (Hayman), and Norm’s sister Sharon (Outhwaite) find out just the same.
Approaching the story in a different way, with plenty of time spent in flashbacks, could be seen as a detriment to Bull, but Williams does it to pare down expository dialogue and let the audience make some of the connections. Truthfully, after these connections are made, it becomes clear that this story is the same old stuff most will have seen before; it’s the attitude that sets it apart though. Grimness is one thing, but the specific events that keep Bull moving, like visiting his ex-wife Gemma (Brabin-Platt) are brutal in ways not exclusive to just violence, though the throughline of watching Bull navigate his native town to hunt down all that have wronged him is compelling and bloody.
Not doing anything new is fine, especially when the timeline shifts and unsettling moments keep investment high. Including a Hail Mary ending adds to the marginal singularity here, even if the swing may not connect for many viewers.
The Characters: Troubled characters litter the story, but the grounded detailing, excellent acting, and connections between them all give them an edge over other avengers and targets.
Bull himself has, in his own words, been to “Hell”, though the movie illustrates that he’d resided there for a longer time than most would think. The heavy of the crime ring, Norm would call on him to do the nastiest of tasks, ones that don’t phase the man in the slightest. With a drug-addicted wife that cheated on him with Gary, and a harsh authority figure like Norm, the only solace he found was with Aiden.
Betrayal was a part of his life before the incident that sent him away for a decade, but even after this, he’s still detached from his deeds, and even begins to find things funny as the runtime wears on. His son is the driving force, making him almost justified in his actions.
Norm, as we find out, is Bull’s father-in-law from his marriage to Gemma. In an identical way to his son-in-law, he cares about his family, threatening anyone who even dares scoff at Gemma’s behavior. Unlike Bull, he can switch from growling crime lord to gentle and at times humorous at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do much exploring into the kind of work he does to maintain such an influence over those surrounding him, but it’s clear that he has that power for a reason.
Side characters like Gary, Bull’s mother, and the assorted gang members, while not receiving the same level of presence afforded to the two main characters, feel real since they’re all connected by proxy; girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, bosses, and mere acquaintances are all relationship statuses that make the lead characters human, though no less unhinged. It’s a borderline kitchen-sink approach that works effectively for stretches, but it’s hard to not want some more time to understand segments of the past lives these characters lived.
The Thrills: William’s efforts here almost make his outing an anti-thriller, since Bull never seeks to enthrall with its confrontations or depictions of violence, instead electing to disturb with its leading man’s actions in the past and present.
It starts and ends with the titular character. During his time working under Norm, he does dark things like slicing a man’s fingers off for not signing a legally binding document for his boss. He goes for the non-dominant hand of course, but the sight is something awful. With that one segment, we know how the man operates on the job; however, it’s how he acts when off the clock that makes him truly intimidating. Just looking at him the wrong way will set him off, with a fellow gang member almost getting shanked with a broken bottle for looking too long.
Nebulousness sets in when investigating the assumed impact Norm has had on Bull before his heel turn. I can’t tell if the demeanor that his underling has come from Norm or somewhere else, but with the way Norm treats him, I could believe either way. A decision to take Bull on a carnival ride whereupon he holds him at gunpoint signals his intentions, and the scene is menacing as can be, and this puts Bull on the warpath, even if he doesn’t know it yet.
Ten years have passed since Norm tried to take Bull out of the picture, with his method of choice being so all-encompassing that he refuses to believe the man is even still alive. Doubts riddle his mind but the panic is there, all the same, now Norm is taking violent precautions to ensure his own survival; ones that bode poorly for those around him.
Keeping on with the disturbing presence of Bull is the way everyone else regards him. Merely suggesting that the man is still around results in whispered fear, disbelief, and immediate preparations for the worst. Once their buried patsy comes back, we see that he’s even more maniacal than before, plunging knives into the mouths of those who knew him, taking one on a ride before putting him down, and only ever saying what needs to be said in the process.
Williams treats his suspense almost as though it were coming from a horror movie. It’s not, but most of the movie is chilling and exciting at the same time, a tall order completed with aplomb.
The Technics: As mentioned, Williams has plenty of experience in the dark depths of life and as such is able to make a tightly wound, confident film with the help of a talented crew behind the camera.
Using cinematographers Ben Chads (Rise of the Footsoldier 3, Whisky Galore) and Vanessa Whyte (Identicals, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) to shoot his movie, Williams takes a slice (no pun intended) of life approach to the look of Bull whenever dealing with the matters of the past, observing as seedy characters navigate a dreary underworld of crime and punishment. That style changes whenever the movie shifts to the present, with a more distant shooting tact, with wide angles and rack focuses that work to sell the man on a mission as more of an animal than a human. Bull is an appropriate moniker.
Pacing is kept taut thanks to editing by James Taylor (Crow, A Confession), who skillfully keys the audience into the settings in a limited time per segment. With a mere 88 minutes of runtime, that’s impressive in many measures. However, even with a brief showing, there are some saggy moments where Williams remains on scenes for longer than necessary; and on other occasions, there are unnecessary flashes of Norm’s betrayal that have already been established.
Using plenty of tropes and familiar ideas begets some slip-ups (including an immensely unnecessary ending), however, Bull is a deeper, darker revenge thriller that reminds us how dangerous the mission becomes in short order.
Bull is available on Digital platforms from Saban Films. And if you’re looking for more like it, FilmTagger has some suggestions.