Poor George Romero. The creator of the modern zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead, he never really got the respect in Hollywood he deserved. The list of films he almost made is probably longer than his actual filmography. In the 1990s alone, he was attached to a number of high-profile projects that were cancelled or he got the boot from: The Mummy, Resident Evil, Goosebumps, and an intriguing project known as Before I Wake (which apparently fell apart after the studio demanded Sharon Stone star and she declined) just to name a few. This trend continues today. In the past eight years, he's made three zombie movies (two of which were independently financed in Canada), but no one will give him money for anything else. That's a shame because I admire his other work greatly.
The last non-zombie movie from Romero came in 2000 with Bruiser, a fascinating if ultimately flat change of pace for the renowned gore master. A revenge fantasy about a man who loses his identity and his face, Bruiser contains some interesting stylistic touches and engaging performances, but it lacks a certain edge and doesn't have many elements that would please horror fans. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised Romero can't find financing for other projects.
Fashion magazine executive Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng) is the ultimate wimp. Everyone walks all over him. His boss Milo (Peter Stormare) degrades him at work, his wife Janine (Nina Garbiras) cheats on him, and his best friend James (Andrew Tarbet) is ripping him off. Henry possesses morbid thought of suicide as well as lashing out against those who have wronged him. The only person he seems to connect with Rosemary (Leslie Hope), Milo's wife. One day, after a company barbecue, Henry wakes up to find his face covered with a blank white mask, erasing his identity.
Seeing as how this was Romero's first picture in about seven or eight years after being misused in Hollywood, Bruiser is an angry picture. Henry has been continually wronged by the time we meet him, putting up with so much crap, and dealing with all sorts of shady people that something finally snaps. We never learn explicitly why the mask appears on his face, how it got there, or even if it's really there. The blankness of it reflects Henry's own emptiness and lack of self-worth.
The first 30 minutes or so are solid in establishing Henry and his life. There's a nice scene at the company barbecue where Rosemary makes a mold mask of everyone's face and tells them to decorate it so people know who it's supposed to be; poor Henry is so meek he can't think of anything to put on the mask. His house, an incomplete mansion in some state of construction, is dotted with plastic sheets that slightly obscure Henry's face, so he's somewhat unrecognizable. Intermixed with his mundane life are Henry's fantasies of revenge and murder until the mask become fixed to his face, and one fantasy turns out to be real. From there, Henry seeks to reclaim his identity from those who took it. As he kills those who have harmed him, Henry paints the mask, the ghostly pale slowly becoming stained with war paint.
Romero's earlier movies have a gritty feeling, lots of jump cuts and a frantic style of editing. Bruiser is more polished with a lot of smoother camerawork and a less rushed pace. Unfortunately, the earlier scenes and fantasies that offer the promise of a twisted, surreal descent into madness result in a rather ordinary revenge piece. The scenes of Henry finally taking revenge against all the bad people in his life should pack a punch. They should build in excitement and tension, but for the most part, they just kind of happen without much fanfare. As a result, there's little satisfaction in seeing these nasty people get their just desserts nor do we feel much suspense. Thankfully, the performances, especially Flemyng and Stormare (who steals the show in a very over-the-top showing), carry the movie, making it at least a passable melodrama with spikes of dark humor.
In the end, Romero seems like he's trying to balance the trappings of a thriller and with the freedom of an art house movie with Bruiser, and while there's some intrigue in the latter, the former is a disappointment. Still, it's an interesting change of pace for a director who seemingly can't escape the undead, and any movie that climaxes at a Misfits concert has to be doing something right.