In the 1970’s, blaxploitation films were a dime a dozen. Covering such diverse topics as gangsters, kung fu, and vampiric comedy, these low-budget flicks combined sex and violence to give audiences around the world a perspective not catered to by the milquetoast output of holiday. Although at first glance, Joe Bullet appears unremarkable, this South African film was banned in 1973 after only two theatrical screenings by the apartheid government in part due to its all-black cast. It remained unseen until a print in someone’s garage was digitally restored by Gravel Road Distribution Group and sent on the film festival circuit in 2014. This DVD release comes from The Film Detective.
Directed by Louis de Witt, cinematographer on several South African films from the 1970s, Joe Bullet tells the tale of a gun for hire (Ken Gampu) who is sent to investigate a group of gangsters responsible for murdering and kidnapping members of the local soccer team The Eagles. Soccer matches, gunplay, and practical stunts abound as we follow Joe Bullet in the wake of the gangsters. He watches local kids play soccer! He rescues a woman from an overturned car in a river! He’s disguises himself as an old man, then spends three minutes in real time removing the disguise, false nose and all, from his face!
The opening credit sequence had me expecting a rollicking good time as we hear a theme tune for “Joe Bullet” that sounds not unlike the theme to “Secret Agent Man.” Sadly, what we get here is a somewhat tired quest that shuffles from scene to scene. Much of the action is unremarkable, but it’s kind of a treat to see how rough much of the acting is. Gampu is a commanding presence as Joe Bullet, but he does little aside from sweat, grunt, and beat people to a pulp. We even get a fight scene on a train that’s reminiscent of a famous battle in From Russia With Love!
Joe Bullet is more interesting for its historical context and the making of the film, which the commentary on the DVD- featuring producer/writer Tonie van der Merwe and Gravel Road’s Benjamin Cowley – does a good job of fleshing out. Among the things we learn is how racist the South African government was at the time, how much of the film only had one or two takes, and that a lot of the flick was shot on van der Merwe’s farm. We also get a trailer for the film and a brief look at the severe restoration this film had to go through. Joe Bullet is presented in a full-screen transfer.
Joe Bullet is not one of the better movies out there, but this DVD is worth the price for the commentary track alone. It’s an illuminating look at a so-so movie. The world of South African film is one I’m unaware of, and I’m eager to explore more of it.