In this movie review, Paul Andrew Williams’ first theatrical picture since 2012’s Song for Marion – which was nothing if not an unexpected departure in direction for the director – returns to the ultra-violent crime fodder for which he is best known. Bull succeeds because to its lean pace, unusually brutal violence, and a top-notch performance by genre veteran Neil Maskell. Williams doesn’t waste any time getting right to the point, with former gang enforcer Bull (Maskell) coming from a decade in exile and systematically killing those who placed him there, working his way through a crime syndicate in search of his kingpin father-in-law Norm (David Hayman). Bull’s ultimate ambition, though, is to reunite with his estranged son Aiden, whose life has been destroyed by his junkie ex-drug wife’s addiction.
Bull’s first scenes show Bull brutally murdering several of Norm’s accomplices who were responsible for immobilizing Bull a decade previously and sending him to “Hell,” as he puts it. Both Bull’s conduct and Williams’ description are merciless in their savagery, but the real takeaway is the nerve-wracking horror with which Bull’s many victims regard him. They’re horrified that he survived such an egregiously devastating catastrophe ten years ago, and they’re well aware of the impending devastation.
It’s good to watch a movie so un-sentimental and practical in its presentation of violence, whether Bull is chopping a man’s arm off and cauterising it on a stove or taking a target for a demented ride at the fairground. Bull is on a hell-bent spirit quest to deconstruct everyone who has ruined his life, whether they are women or have settled down with children. Bull is a very basic crime yarn outside of the brutality, as the main character chases the blood-soaked crumbs to his end-boss father-in-law. Other genre aspects are present in the film’s periphery, the full amount of which is revealed only in the third act, however some may believe that this part is introduced too late to be successful or taken seriously.
Maskell, who has been an extremely intense presence in British filmmaking since Kill List ten years ago, is the one who keeps the movie together at all times. Maskell portrays a silently scary death merchant, and phrases like “I’ll cut you from bollock to arse” hit with terrifying dread. Veteran actor David Hayman is a gravel-voiced pleasure, prone to switching from joviality to sociopathy at a moment’s notice, as is his antagonist routine.
Williams’ technical presentation is strong throughout – particularly his reliance on powerful close-ups of Maskell’s face – and is complemented by James Taylor’s fast editing, which keeps the film’s runtime to a manageable 88 minutes. Due to the lack of visual cues distinguishing each time period, the continual cross-cutting among past and present might be perplexing at times. The locations portrayed throughout have such a day-to-day dullness about them that helps to anchor and realize the plot, which is especially vital later on.
Bull doesn’t really say anything new or unusual about the hollowness of retribution, but its third act parlour trick should at the very least spark some discussion and prompt those who loved the experience to rewatch it through a different perspective. Audiences couldn’t be blamed for finding the film’s late-film twist startling. Bull’s highly disciplined pacing, gut-wrenching brutality, and a typically riveting Neil Maskell performance balance out its conventional trappings – and a sure-to-divide ending.