BULLETPROOF (1988): Busey Battles The Butthorns

Before he settled into his current career as a featured player on reality t.v. and in the tabloids, Gary Busey enjoyed a lengthy career as a legitimate actor.  For genre movie fans, one of the most interesting periods of his career was a stretch from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s that found him starring in a lot of action flicks, usually as a featured player (Lethal Weapon, Point Blank) and sometimes as a villain (Under Siege).

He even managed to notch up a few leading roles as a leading man in the action hero: the best-loved of these is Eye Of The Tiger… but the most notorious is Bulletproof, a goofy romp through action tropes that shows off the genre at its most ridiculous.

In this film, Busey plays Frank McBain, a cop and ex-military man who is known as “bulletproof” because he’s been shot over three dozen times and survived each incident.  The military calls him out of retirement to go down to Mexico solo and retrieve a high-tech tank that has been captured by a coalition of domestic thugs and imported terrorist Col. Kartiff (Henry Silva).  McBain has added motivation because one of the soldiers kidnapped with this tank is Devon (Darlanne Fluegel), an old flame that he parted ways with on tragic circumstances.  Bedlam south of the border ensues, along with explosions and plenty of shootouts.

Action movies from the ’80s have acquired a certain camp allure in modern times due to their amped-up machismo – but most of them never traveled as far into meatheaded silliness as Bulletproof does.  T.L. Lankford’s script is a grab-bag of several popular action movies that had preceded in the last few years: it freely lifts plot hooks from Rambo, Red Dawn, Blue Thunder, even Stripes (the finale with Busey and Fluegel driving a military weapon they don’t fully know how to operate).

Lankford wrote a lot of scripts from Fred Olen Ray during this era – Ray gets a co-story credit here – and it has the same mixture of barely-there plotting and forced comedy you find in Ray’s films.  The central premise never quite makes sense, particularly the Army wanting the tank to get captured by the bad guys for reasons never really explained to draw out McBain.  It also has problems with tone, like an unpleasant subplot with Devon getting raped by Col. Kartiff.  Finally, there is tons of bad comedic dialogue, including endless plays on the title phrase and Busey’s habit of referring to his antagonists as “butthorn.”

That said, Bulletproof remains watchable in a low-grade kind of way thanks to the professionalism of its cast and crew.  Veteran action director Steve Carver helmed the film: while he can’t salvage the dumb script, he at least piles on the action and fills the cast with lots of quality character actors.  In fact, the impressive backing ensemble includes such notables as Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Perry Lopez, William Smith and Danny Trejo.  The story doesn’t offer them much to do but their presence is comforting.

That said, it’s Busey who provides all the highlights here.  He plays out the premise with a wink to the audience, giving some much-needed personality and charm to what could have been another dull action hero role.  He manages to maintain his dignity even when the script has him do things like roll down a hill while tied to a big wooden wheel. Best of all, he looks like he’s having fun with this silliness and that  will help carry the patient viewer through this programmer.

DVD Notes: this title has been in and out of print over the years.  Shout Factory has just released an anamorphic transfer of the film on their Action Packed Movie Marathon Vol. 2.  The results look and sound solid – and you also get three other films for the budget-level price: Bamboo Gods And Iron Men, Scorchy and Trackdown.

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