George A. Romero took nearly seven years off to follow up on his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and the film that he wrote and directed in early 2000 to return to filmmaking was Bruiser. While it might not be the best film in his canon, it’s certainly not the worst (Survival of the Dead), and more than that, Romero effectively utilizes the underdog trope to work it into the slasher movie formula. He also enlists the help of The Misfits for the cause.
Bruiser follows Henry (Jason Flemyng), a guy who, from an outsider’s standpoint, is doing pretty well in life. It looks like he’s got money since he’s renovating his house, he’s got a beautiful wife, and he’s got a pretty high-profile job at the beauty magazine Bruiser. Except all of those things are really just superficial; Henry’s unhappy and he’s walked on by his boss, his friend/financial adviser, and his wife.
Bruiser first shows us how pitiful Henry is by putting him through a gamut of horrible things at once. His wife cheats on him with Bruiser’s douchebag CEO (Peter Stormare), and he finds out that the money he invested with his friend actually did make some returns, all to his friend’s pocket. These moments are crippling for Henry, a guy who already struggles with his self-confidence during normal daily life. It’s also especially frustrating for the viewer, because we know even more about what’s going on behind Henry’s back.
Eventually, Henry becomes so dehumanized that he wakes up one morning with a blank mask on his face. It’s a moment that defines Henry’s life so far: unnoticed and unwanted, he might as well pretend like he’s not even there at all. But it goes farther than that; Bruiser, giving Henry free reign over being identity-less, shifts into a slasher film where Henry gets to take out his revenge on the people who have done him wrong.
In truth, Romero’s script is fairly generic. The revenge plot has certainly been done before, with the same kind of depth and political leanings that Romero includes in this film. But Bruiser has some fun with it anyway, allowing Henry to murder his wife by throwing her out a window or attending a rave with his mask on. And Romero keeps the idea of the faceless mask a mystery – it’s never clear whether the mask is a psychological projection or a real one secretively afforded him, and that allows Bruiser to mess with viewer expectations more than if the mask was qualified as real or fake.
Still, Bruiser is a bit overlong for its plot. One gets the feeling this might have been a great short story, something better suited to Tales from the Crypt instead of a full-length film. Once the film gets into the killing territory, there’s not much room for forward movement in terms of story – it simply sates the appetite for revenge.
That’s not such a terrible thing, though, and Bruiser excels at what it does for the most part. Romero effectively paints Henry as the sad anti-hero of the film, and the first act is enough to get the viewer to pity him. Suffering from an extended premise does not necessarily negate the good parts of Bruiser, it just makes it more difficult to sit through. Still, if you do, you’ll get to see The Misfits.