LOVE AND A BULLET was one of the movies that made me believe in DTV when I reviewed it for The Ain’t It Cool News 16 years ago. I include that link only for historical purposes – it’s a poorly written review and I randomly refer to co-writer/co-director Kantz as a “clown.” I honestly didn’t mean anything by it, I just thought it was funny to have hostility toward some guy for no reason. It never occurred to me that the people I was writing about might read the reviews, and I hadn’t yet learned the lesson that shit like that can get you a wrestling challenge. Apologies to Kantz, whether or not he saw it. I have no reason to believe he is a clown.
At the time Ain’t It Cool had run a bunch of my reviews of movies I’d seen at SIFF, and a few at preview screenings, plus these DTV or DTVish ones I’d gotten VHS screeners of:
Some of those are good or not bad, and had played film festivals, but the sequel ones were mediocre and representative of what I expected out of straight-to-video at that time. I realize now that I still had a snobbish attitude engrained into me back then. I was looking for trashy ironic fun more than actual quality. And even though I was a hip hop fan and always cited Ice Cube’s performance in BOYZ N THE HOOD as proof that rappers could make good actors, in other cases I think I took on society’s assumption that this was a crass commercial move not to be taken seriously. I never really got into Naughty By Nature, so who did this Treach think he was trying to star in a movie?
Instead of being totally confident in my enjoyment of the movie I had to self-consciously hedge everything, calling it “SURPRISINGLY UN-BAD” and saying “Treach is not one of them revelations or anything but he does a worthy job.” Actually, watching it again now that I’m slightly less stupid, I kinda think he is a revelation. He’d had some dramatic acting experience in JASON’S LYRIC and on Oz, but this combination of looking badass and being really funny is both unexpected and rare within the medium. With the exception of ACCIDENT MAN you don’t really see this much narration in a DTV action movie and have it be a good thing. And Treach’s narration is pretty complicated. He has to be funny and likable while talking about killing people. He has to be surprisingly smart at times and dumber than he thinks at other times. There’s comic timing involved and rhythms of stylized dialogue but also he has to get quiet and emotional while describing major changes in his life.
I was right that he was good, but I didn’t give him enough credit.
LOVE AND A BULLET holds up, and in some ways maybe even improves with age. The other writer/director along with Kantz is Ben Ramsey, after writing THE BIG HIT but before directing BLOOD AND BONE. Some of the playful cuts and camera moves check out with his later work, and the action climax in a warehouse is kinda fun, though it’s very, very basic compared to what he’ll do with Michael Jai White. It’s mostly people standing and shooting at each other straight on. But I like the way Treach’s character Malik keeps shooting people dead-on without even looking their direction, and I’m very fond of the gimmick that they try to spruce up their shooting with hotshot poses. When the character Cisco does a somersault before shooting, Malik responds with this:
Which Cisco follows with a backspin.
That’s our anti-hero Malik Bishop. He’s telling us the story while holed up in a ratty apartment spying on his boss’s girlfriend Cynda Griffie (Kent Masters-King, THE WASH) through a sniper scope. He’s a prodigy of murder, “the hardest, coldest bastard to screw a silencer on a pistol,” which is how he got this job waiting for the signal to kill her, but he’s a “complex black man” so he’s having some feelings about it. He tells us about his life going back to his street thug days working for Frenchy Davis (Freez Luv, HOUSE PARTY 3, DANGEROUS MINDS, BABY BOY), crack dealer and “number one employer of downwardly mobile black youths in the neighborhood.”
Malik’s like a gifted kid – he excels because he’s so talented, but he’s frustrated because nobody else takes the job as seriously as he does. He aims carefully while they shoot sideways in what he calls “the innocent women and children style of shooting.” When he murders his superior’s superior for showing up late to a meeting he thinks it’s a death sentence, but instead it impresses mobster Damien Wiles (Charles Guardino, “Waiter,” OUT FOR JUSTICE) and gets him a job as “a professional,” training under the o.g. Buddy (Sam Scarber, “Referee #3,” THE KARATE KID, OVER THE TOP, DEAD BANG, SHOCKER), wearing a suit, sitting with a crew talking shit and playing cards until they get called up to take care of somebody (at one point disguised as construction workers, just like in THE BIG HIT).
Malik and his co-workers seem to be very sexist and objectifying, and there’s a part where a “hoe” kisses him and he just pushes her head into his lap. But when a guy calls the hit-women “bitches” he gets killed with a poolstick by Pepa (as in “A Salt with a Deadly…”), and Malik’s eventual girlfriend Hylene (Shireen Crutchfield, HOUSE PARTY 3) puts up with no shit from him, is just as badass of a professional killer as him, and even has a good relationship with him where they laugh together and talk about life and their problems and stuff. Also, she keeps her clothes on but makes him strip for her, and it shows his dick. So there’s some balance there.
Just like THE BIG HIT, killing is treated as a normal job, with all the quirks and distresses of a normal job. Back then I was wary of how much of a cliche that was, but it’s easier to forgive in an era when you don’t see it as much. This company even has a bowling team. This time the boss is more of a problem than the co-workers – the story deals with institutionalized racism in the workplace. Buddy is very sensitive and bitter about “The Black Guard” not getting treated like the white guys who defend Damien’s office, and about being passed up for a promotion. When he gets pissed off and tells Damien “I ain’t taking no shit from y’all crackers anymore” he gets a big speech that starts “Let me tell you something. There are no colors around here, mister, no color lines” and ends talking about “descending from the mountaintops” while “America the Beautiful” plays.
It’s a big laugh that reminds me of Elliott Gould’s character in THE BIG HIT – two white characters who take comically enormous pride in their self-proclaimed racial enlightenment. But Gould was harmless, this guy is actually a bad person exploiting black people but trying to argue (and possibly really believing) that he’s doing a great service for them. (Or, as Malik puts it, he’s “a nutcase gangster, wannabe-white-Martin-Luther-King on crack.”)
That’s not the only overlap with THE BIG HIT. Both movies have characters named Melvin and Cisco. The Melvin (Mike Smith, “Harvey’s Thug,” BATMAN FOREVER) is definitely not Melvin Smiley, because his last name is McBride, and he’s not a hitman. But Cisco is an obnoxious and arrogant fellow hitman who he has to fight in the end, just like the other one. Since both Ciscos also call everybody “baby” all the time, I suspect at some point they were supposed to be the same character. This version is played by Walter Jones, best known as the original Black Ranger on MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS – I wish he got do do more martial arts, but at least he’s much funnier than you’d think.
Both movies also have a standout scene where (probly inspired by GOODFELLAS) the anti-hero tries in earnest to prepare a special meal while also taking care of criminal activities, and then it gets burnt and he has to get food from a deli (in this case the deli is also a cover for body disposal). This was the main thing I remembered about the movie, and still my favorite joke: the character Sala (Parris Washington, “Prison Guard,” THE CIRCUIT 2: THE FINAL PUNCH) is constantly talking about Yaphet Kotto throughout the movie, and Malik has to take the job instead of him because “a special two-hour Homicide is on tonight. He won’t come.”
It’s hard not to like a movie that keeps surprising you with little bits like that. I still agree with my old review that the action is better in THE BIG HIT but that the humor is much better here. For personal reasons I like that Malik is inspired to leave the game after seeing a movie about “this old ass cowboy that used to be a hardcore killer and now he a pig farmer.” He describes the plot of this unnamed 1992 best picture winner and is clearly moved by it and tells us “It was a stupid movie. But it kind of fucked with me.”
This one also has much better music. The mostly hip hop inspired score is by Tyler Bates (TAMMY AND THE T-REX, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, 300, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) and Wolfgang Matthes. There’s plenty of background rap and a prominently placed Naughty By Nature song called “Rah Rah” for the preparing-my-weapons-and-sunglasses-for-the-big-showdown montage.
I don’t hear much about Treach these days either as an actor or a rapper, which is too bad. I respect his run as a DTV action star (TODAY YOU DIE, CONNOR’S WAR, THE ART OF WAR III: RETRIBUTION), and I’ve come to have more appreciation for the importance of Naughty By Nature. In fact, in the name of a better tomorrow I purchased their first album and I’m listening to it as I type. Good so far. He got a nice compliment in Ice-T’s documentary SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: THE ART OF RAP when Eminem talked about his influence.