Bullet Boy Review
Ken Loach, director of Sweet Sixteen, the film Bullet Boy most resembles in contemporary terms, has never once used the ’scope frame. A product of television he’s either stuck with the academy ratio or gone no further than 1.85:1, and his efforts seem perfectly suited to such dimensions. Bullet Boy, however, does go for the wider ratio and it’s interesting to ask why. Most likely, it’s a means of asserting the fact that this is a cinematic effort; despite being in part financed by the BBC and having a subject matter more commonly seen on small rather than big screens, Saul Dibb’s feature debut is a film and does deserve its theatrical showings. Indeed, it’s also a venture in possession of some cinematic savvy, as the opening scene reveals: whilst the last remaining titles reveal themselves we hear a banging coming from the boot of a moving à la GoodFellas. Yet such a nod is also decidedly tongue-in-cheek – the noise is the result of a stowaway child hoping to see his brother leave prison rather than anything sinister or violent, and the result of such is revelation is a firm statement on Dibb’s part: Bullet Boy is not a flashy British counterpart to GoodFellas, nor is it a new Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, nor is it one of the pale imitations which followed in either’s wake.
Those wishing for a reference point would be better of considering Horace Ové’s Pressure or, if they’re after something a little more modern, John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. The young man coming out of prison in Bullet Boy’s initial moments is 20 year old Ricky (Ashley Walters). His aim is to rehabilitate himself, yet friendship and not knowing any better prevent him from doing so, even days into his release. As such we get not only a stark portrait of young black British life (though, of course, Bullet Boy is not suggesting that Ricky’s story is applicable to all young black males), but also – courtesy of the film’s opening out his story to accommodate his school age brother Curtis (Luke Fraser) and their single mother (Claire Perkins) – the wider effects on those living within such a culture.
Key to this is Dibb’s approach of making the major plot points comes across as decidedly minor. The reason for Ricky’s prison term, for example, is only divulged in a throwaway manner about a third of the way through the picture. Moreover, the relationship he has with his younger brother, though Bullet Boy draws comparisons and makes pertinent juxtapositions, continually escapes the melodramatics of the similar familial bond found in American History X. Instead, Dibb focuses in on the details and gives his film a loose, almost baggy feel. The latter is demonstrative throughout: in the score by Neil Davidge and Robert Del Naja (of Massive Attack fame); in the improvisatory manner of the performances; in the inauspicious way the surroundings are captured despite the ’scope photography (in a way it recalls Minder and other London-set television series of the seventies which never had the time or money to consider their locales and instead inadvertently absorbed the essences of the era). As for the details, here Dibb creates plenty of mileage. The fact that Ricky still shares a bunk bed belies his life experiences up until this point, whilst the entirely incidental near gag of the porn mags being found under his mattress during an armed police raid neatly diffuses any overt drama in the situation and also highlight’s the film’s inherent sense of the ordinary. Indeed, by firstly focusing on aimlessness of Ricky’s life (conversations which go nowhere, late night drives which do likewise…) we are gradually sucked into a mundanity which later makes the escalating violence – and gun violence at that – seem all the more dramatically acceptable. Just to make the point again, Bullet Boy most certainly is not Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
In order to make this work, Dibb has also set his film within an enclosed, claustrophobic world. (Note the police interview in which we only hear Ricky’s words – it’s as though we’re not being allowed to escape too far from our protagonist or see a different perspective.) Of course, this creates an immense, equally claustrophobic focus on Ricky, but it also points towards one of Bullet Boy’s limitations. Through our lead, Curtis and their mother we get three generations, yet the bridges between them are not always clear. Certainly, the parallels between Ricky and his brother allow us to see how one could turn into the other, but we never see how Ricky can develop into true adulthood as all of those around him come across as mature and well-balanced; there’s no sense of them of having gone through their own troubled youth or how they managed to escape or grow out of it. Admittedly, we do get the character of Leon (the local preacher and boyfriend of the boys’ mother played by Curtis Walker), yet his rehabilitation has come through religion, an avenue which doesn’t seem open to Ricky. Of course, we could read such an omission as a means of highlighting the dead end within which Ricky has found himself, but it remains an omission nonetheless.
Elsewhere flaws are noticeably rare. Some of the young actors may appear a little uneasy in delivering their dialogue at times, but each has a presence and attitude which befits their characters (Walters, in particular, marks himself out as one to watch despite the groans which may have been emitted owing to his So Solid Crew connections). Moreover, Dibb sidesteps what could potentially be Bullet Boy’s biggest problem. Being a white, middle class director making a film about black urban life in Hackney, he could easily face accusations of condescension, patronisation or simply of being out of his depth. Yet he demonstrates a true understanding for his subject and avoids any sensationalism whilst drawing out the complexities. Indeed, his is a work to rank alongside other great British debut features; one only hopes that he is allowed to continue to deliver on such a promise.
Bullet Boy arrives on DVD form in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Given an anamorphic transfer, the film looks as good as could be expected. The colours are as rich as should be expected and whilst the graininess of the image is intentional, the disc copes decidedly well. We do, on occasion, get some evidence of artefacting, but this remains a minor flaw. Also impressive is the DD5.1 sound mix. Understandably, it is the front channels which handle much of the film owing to its dialogue heavy nature, yet Bullet Boy’s fine musical accompaniment also allows for a more expansive dimension. Both also come across especially well with neither interfering with each other nor demonstrating any technical problems.
As for extras, Bullet Boy comes with some worthy additions. The ‘making of’ featurette is a cut above the usual standard courtesy of its contributions. Indeed, it may rest heavily on clips from the film itself, but the likes of Dibb, his co-writer Catherine R. Johnson and other cast and crew members reveal themselves to be eloquent and intelligent in their thoughts on the film’s themes. Indeed, Dibb especially seems to know what he’s doing as, of course, the main feature demonstrates.
The second featurette, ‘Asher D TV’, is a looser affair and is perhaps included to accommodate Ashley Walter’s So Solid Crew fanbase. Essentially it’s a 25-minute video diary record of the young actor on the film’s promotional campaign and as such isn’t of the highest quality. The sound in particular is inaudible at points, but more importantly this is a piece in need of a good editor as it often spends its time going nowhere in particular.
More interesting are the audition tapes which were filmed and edited by Dibb himself. Here we get an insight into the workshops the director used to allow his actors to build their characters through improvisation. As the explanatory intertitles explain, much of what we see here didn’t actually make it into the final film and as such these four brief pieces could also be seen as deleted scenes.
The package is rounded of two theatrical trailers, though both of these have already featured heavily in the first featurette.
Unlike the main feature, all of these special features comes without optional English subtitles.