Vet horror director George A. Romero brings to the first 40 minutes or so of “Bruiser” the provocative story, intuitive editing and sudden gore effects that made his “Living Dead” trilogy a cornerstone of the horror genre. Yet the tale of a milquetoast who wakes up one morning with a white, featureless face that gives him carte blanche to kill those who’ve exploited him without detection just can’t sustain feature-length scrutiny, particularly given inevitable expectations. Pic won’t make much impression theatrically, but the Romero name ensures muscular cable and vid life.
Wimp in question is Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng), who works for tyrannical, sexist publisher Miles Styles (Peter Stormare) in “the face biz” at some sort of fashion mag called Bruiser, the motto of which is “We make heat.” Perhaps because of macho pressure and money troubles, Henry’s day is punctuated by fantasizes of killing himself, punching his fellow commuters and smashing an ax into the head of his shrewish wife, Janine (Nina Garbiras).
Learning in short order that he’s being cuckolded by Miles and swindled by stockbroker chum James (Andrew Tarbert), Henry arises the next day with a white mask where his face was. Like a vengeful Marcel Marceau, he embarks on a quest for justice, sparing only Miles’ wife, Rosemary (Leslie Hope), whose artwork may have inspired the unexplained phenomenon.
There are flashes of the kinetic Romero wit early on, particularly in hard-boiled bickering between investigating officers McCleary (Tom Atkins) and Rakowski (Jonathan Higgins), windows and masks as visual motifs and a complex sequence involving a dead maid, small dog and a table saw. Yet pic loses punch in the midsection and takes a wrong turn just before the climax, when Romero succumbs to his career-long weakness for biker fetishism and forced physical humor. Worse, the expected and rooted-for comeuppance of Miles is fumbled badly, leaving pic with nowhere to go but home. And, as a pivotal plot point, the whole mask thing must be taken at, uh, face value, which is a double-edged sword at best.
Perfs are competent, with Flemyng holding a creditable American accent for most of the picture and Stormare stealing the show as the priapic, foul-mouthed, improbably accented Miles (pronounced, for some reason, “Meelo”).
Toronto-shot pic is workmanlike in all departments, featuring a mischievous score by Donald Rubinstein. Producer is former distrib Ben Barenholtz, whose acquisitions for Janus Films in the 1970s included Romero’s contempo vampire pic “Martin” — to which the psychological underpinnings of “Bruiser” clearly owe a debt.