Cyberpunk cinema has been largely defined by the intense imagery of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Tetsuo: Body Hammer (1992), a pair of extremely violent – but undeniably visionary – films by Shinya Tsukamoto that merge man with metal as a means of commenting on the extent to which technology has taken over modern life. In keeping with the transformative nature of the Tetsuo series, this third installment is not positioned as a second sequel or franchise revival, but as an extension; Tsukamoto partially recycles the storyline of Body Hammer but also takes events into international territory with English-language dialogue and references to the lengths that American corporations will go to in order to limit public knowledge of their activities. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man has been a long-gestating project that, at one point, could have been dubbed Tetsuo Goes to Hollywood in that Quentin Tarantino was reportedly keen to produce an American version with Tsukamoto at the helm and Tim Roth in the lead role. However, the director could not imagine a Tetsuo film taking place anywhere but Tokyo and was also concerned about the restrictive schedule that would be imposed through star casting. Still, he continued to toy with the notion of making an Americanised version of Tetsuo and the result is Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. The industrialised action still takes place in Tokyo but an American actor is cast in the lead role and the central idea of the series (rage causing physical change) simplified to the point that this could be mistaken for a Tetsuo imitation rather than an official series entry if Tsukamoto’s name was not plastered all over the credits.
This time around, the man with the previously untapped capability to transform into a walking weapon is Anthony (Eric Bossick), an American who was born and raised in Tokyo and is now married to a Japanese woman, with whom he has a young son. Anthony’s career is on the right track, but he is not as in control with regards to family life; his wife (Akiko Monō) refuses to leave their stylish but sterile apartment due to fits of anxiety, while his former scientist father constantly asks Anthony to go for medical check-ups due to never coming to terms with the loss of his wife to cancer several decades earlier. Tsukamoto establishes these familial tensions through some of the most awkward expository dialogue in recent memory and terrible lines like, ‘Dad, I’m worried about you. It’s been twenty years since mom died and you still haven’t healed. You need to get back into biotech research’, are made even more so by the theatrical delivery that the director demands of his cast. Admittedly, one watches the films of Tsukamoto for striking imagery rather than scintillating dialogue, but the machine-infused action that follows is as ill-judged as the scene-setting that has preceded it. After visiting his father, Anthony’s son is run down by a car in an act of vehicular homicide, a devastating loss which sends his wife spiralling into despair while Anthony tries to keep things together for the sake of his sanity. With his wife demanding that he find and punish the motorist responsible for their son’s death, Anthony’s angry side begins to emerge, prompting a transformation from mild-mannered family man to metallic monster.
Tetsuo: The Bullet Man wastes little time in trying to keep promise – or threat – of its title, with the newly-mechanised Anthony hunting down the killer (Tsukamoto himself, whose presence provides a link to the previous films) while breaking out the heavy artillery to fight off a corporate-sponsored SWAT team. Yet these set-pieces fail to set the pulse racing as, from a technical perspective, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is a mixed bag with trademark Tsukamoto touches being undermined by erratic execution and the dubious decision to shoot digitally. The director’s use of Tokyo locations (darkened underpasses, deserted streets and tall buildings) demonstrate his flair for filtering futurism through contemporary cityscapes, but the constantly-shaking camerawork – once not only his stylistic signature but a statement of underground intent – now just seems to be a means of covering up budgetary restraints. As an example of DIY cinema, Tetsuo struggles to adapt to the digital age, with the shortcomings of the low-cost special effects being particularly evident when subjected to the high definition treatment. As such, the action sequences lack the raw power of the earlier films, which thrived on grainy cinematography that at once achieved a heightened sensory assault and concealed the imperfections in the effects work. Aiming for an aesthetic hybrid of The Iron Man and Body Hammer, Tsukamoto starts out with stark black-and-white and then adds colour as Anthony’s rage increases but fails to recapture their cinematic scope. Amid the mayhem, the addition of an evil American corporation is a standard science-fiction trope rather than political critique, providing further evidence that this Tetsuo entry is spinning its wheels rather than firing on all cylinders.