Neil Maskell has been typecast as an unhinged, violent man, and Bull only cements Maskell as an actor best suited for that particular role. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams in between the first and second coronavirus lockdowns, Maskell stars as the titular Bull in this violent thriller that can’t decide whether it wants to be taken seriously or give audiences a bloody good ride.
The film literally starts off with a bang, as we’re introduced to Bull as he calmly walks up to someone and carries out a point-blank assassination. He’s the muscle for a tight-knit gang, and everyone who’s heard of his name knows not to mess with Bull. Except, someone did, and now Bull is out for bloody revenge. Early flashbacks that end up playing throughout the whole film reveal Bull as a man with a wife (Lois Brabin-Platt) addicted to heroin and a son (Henri Charles) who he dearly loves. Bull’s wife is the daughter of his gangster boss (David Hayman); however, and some altercation leads to an event involving a caravan up in flames. Whatever occurred on that fateful night has led Bull to track down each member of his old gang to exact revenge and search for his estranged wife and son.
It doesn’t take long for the first batch of victims to meet their demise and set the tone for just how violent Bull can get. Bull is a ruthless and brutal killer, and the early set pieces are played out with such an intense straight face that you’ll be forgiven for thinking this was a riveting gangland drama with a bloody edge. Unfortunately for Williams’s tone in the film’s first half, several issues arise that dampen the experience.
The first glaring issue is the dialogue and performances. Maskell does his best to snarl his way through lines pulled straight from the revenge thriller guidebook – “I’m coming… I’m coming for all of them” – and the rest of the cast are relegated to either acting ‘ard as a Cockney gangster or terrified when confronted by Bull. Hayman does match Maskell’s intensity and comes across as genuinely menacing, but the two leads can only do so much with the weak script. The other issue is how unlikeable the entire cast is. Williams seems to make an effort for us to care for the characters, and in particular Bull’s relationship with his son, but each character is irredeemably evil through their on-screen actions.
Around the midpoint, however, the film changes gears. It’s too late at this point to save the film, but at least it provides a much-needed shot of adrenalin. Bull finally leans into what it should have been from the very first frame – a callback to schlocky, exploitation thrillers from the ’80s. The violence ramps up, and the director gleefully creates shocking moments that will have gorehounds cheering at the screen. What was a weakness in the first half becomes a strength in the second half – the lack of empathy for each character will have audiences jeering for their gruesome death. Bull becomes increasingly unhinged and unpredictable, and Maskell seems to relish each time he can ramp up the absurdity, leading to some entertainingly laughable moments.
Little details in the script harken back to the trashy flicks of the past, most notably by introducing a new character that totally stands out from the rest of the cast by having an actual personality – before they’re quickly dispatched in one of the film’s most deliciously violent scenes. The dialogue, too, is increasingly ridiculous, but it works within the new tone Bull is operating under. What is less successful, though, is the twist ending which audiences will either love or hate.
Bull can be entertaining, but it simply takes far too long to reach that point. It feels like Williams isn’t exactly sure of what revenge thriller he wants to present us with, leading to a messy final product that only hints at how entertaining this film could have been. It’s impressive that they managed to shoot Bull in between two national lockdowns during a pandemic, but more time was clearly needed beforehand to figure out precisely what Bull is. Only go charging in to see this one if you’re particularly eager for flashes of ultra-violence.
Bull screened as part of BFI London Film Festival and will be released in cinemas on November 5.