Good intentions sometimes come in odd packages, and while one doesn’t doubt writer-director Paul Solet’s sincerity, “Bullet Head” makes his judgment questionable — a vaguely “Reservoir Dogs”-esque crime thriller is not, it turns out, the ideal vehicle in which to plead for humane treatment of actual dogs. Even without that earnest underlying agenda, this slick but ungainly opus would be a curious animal, with its mix of present-tense suspense and (too many) comedic or sentimental flashbacks, as robbers Adrien Brody, John Malkovich and Rory Culkin kill time in a warehouse after a bungled heist.
None of the actors is at his best in the Bulgaria-shot feature, with Antonio Banderas especially thanklessly deployed as a nemesis. Add in dialogue that often labors for wit or profundity; doggy-POV shots and flashbacks; plus the fact that this appeal to canine lovers involves critters that are bloody and torn from illegal fighting matches — a sure turnoff to much of its intended audience. The result is a film that somehow manages to be fairly watchable, yet nonetheless really needed intervention from the conceptual stage onward. Even the title doesn’t make sense: Bullets do fly, but whose head are we talking about? Not the principal four-legged figure, whom we eventually learn is called De Niro in yet another of the film’s dubious hat-tips to prior, better genre movies.
Owing to the impulsiveness of twitchy young Gage (Culkin), a raid on a big-box store has already gone wrong when first we meet him and the pissed-off older men he’d recruited for the job — longtime associates Stacy (Brody) and Walker (Malkovich). For good measure, they crash their getaway vehicle in an abandoned industrial complex, where they must now cool their heels waiting for a colleague to pick them up.
But it turns out they are not alone: Left behind for dead after winning a long series of eliminating matchups with other fighting dogs is De Niro, a gore-streaked Canary Mastiff — an imposing hulk trained for violence by the owner-bettor (Banderas) who abandoned it, and the handler (Ori Pfeffer) whose corpse it guards. The latter was supremely unlucky to be around when the abused hound snapped its tether. A day or two later, our protagonists narrowly escape De Niro’s vice-like jaws by shutting themselves behind a metal door.
The trio is barely recovered from shock when Gage, going through the beginnings of withdrawal, slips out to retrieve the bag of drugs he left outside, addicted enough to risk being chomped. Meanwhile a solo policeman with his own K-9 unit shows up to investigate an apparent break-in. Eventually the criminal fugitives, sulking over their poor haul, are delighted to discover a room full of unclaimed loot from the site’s prior dog fights. Unfortunately for them, Banderas’ Mr. Blue won’t be long in turning up to claim it, and he’s quite happy to kill anyone in his way.
Despite this seemingly hectic progress, there’s too much downtime during which the principal characters spin flashback-heavy stories that are overwritten and laden with tough-guy pathos, just as the exchanges between characters are overcooked degree of hardboiled. Many of these tales involve childhood trauma done to beloved dogs; when we get to our villain’s anecdote, he’s the guy doing the harm. Even De Niro (played by no less than five animals) gets his own flashbacks, when he’s not padding around the premises looking for people in “Cujo”-like canine Blur-O-Vision, or — in the film’s single best sequence — triggering a complex, almost Rube Goldberg-ian series of evasive maneuvers by Brody.
Wisely, “Bullet Proof” does not portray dogfights explicitly. But their cruel reality is implied vividly enough to seriously sour a movie that often, rather incongruously (and over-confidently) appears terribly pleased with its alternately pretentious and arch dialogue. Malkovich gets the worst of it, his character a fountain of clunky aphorisms the actor sometimes seems to mumble in self-defense. For their part, Brody and Banderas (whose role is a very generic Bad Guy) overdo that “whisper-talking” thing Eastwood started and far too many have imitated. Culkin, who made quite a bit of a slight role in “Columbus” recently, can’t make much of this one beyond a serviceable audition for “American Buffalo.”
Though one might groan at the prospect of yet another crime thriller set in an empty warehouse (in another undesignated American city portrayed by Eastern Europe), Solet and crew make good use of the location, with above-average work by DP Zoran Popovic and production designer Nikola Bercek. The director, whose prior feature “Grace” was a very slow-burning spin on the “monster baby” horror conceit, considerably steps up the pace here with editor Josh Ethier’s able assist. (A conventional thumping thriller score from Austin Wintory is less helpful.) But the competence of its execution can only do so much to raise “Bullet Head” above the script’s basic awkwardness.