In the mid-to-late 90s, former SNL cast member Adam Sandler became a comedy leading man, able to wrangle millions at the box office. Flash forward nearly two decades and Sandler is still around; so prevalent that he’s almost become ubiquitous. Suffice to say, he seems to have folded comfortably into a routine that seems to be resonating with audiences even this long after his cinematic debut. That pattern persists with this week’s release, That’s My Boy, in which Sandler plays an inappropriate, unstable, and wholly inadequate father to his beleaguered son, played by current SNL cast member Andy Samberg.
Before the baton is passed, and Samberg begins to potentially emulate the exaggerated comedy styling that made Sandler so commercially viable, perhaps it’s worth examining a earlier film in his catalog; a film that exits outside of his go-to whacky sensibilities. Bulletproof was released in 1996, the same year in fact as Happy Gilmore. It stars Sandler and Damon Wayans as a pair of expert, but likable, criminals. Sandler’s characters is slowly working his way up the ladder; striving to embed himself in the good graces of one of the city’s premier bad guys (played by James Caan). Unfortunately for Sandler, Wayans is an undercover cop. Bulletproof is a great example of an atypical Sandler movie, and thanks to the magic of Netflix’s Watch Instantly service, you can discover this title for yourself before hitting the multiplex this weekend to see That’s My Boy.
The current spate of Sandler films seem to mortgage their comedic success on Sandler being as loud and animated as humanly possible, and sometimes beyond the limits typical human behavior. In fact, the seeds of this formula are evident in the likes of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. It usually involves incessant manchildishness and a falsetto voice. In Bulletproof however, that formula is not at all exploited. It’s an action comedy that relies heavily on shootouts, car chases, and fist fights. In fact, the ratio of silly laughs to action set pieces is similar to that of Michael Bay’s Bad Boys. It’s hardly a coincidence that Bulletproof was released the very year after Bad Boys.
It’s hard to deny that Bulletproof is a flawed film, in fact very much so. However there are tinges, flashes of something far more impressive than its central conceit/marketing strategy would suggest. The relationship between Sandler and Wayans is actually quite well developed and far more humanizing for Sandler than anything that happens to him in his early film efforts. He’s angsty and loud, but not as much of a complete caricature, and yet even his silliest moment seems legitimately rooted in the expression of his emotional betrayal.
The first act of the film firmly establishes these two guys as sincere friends and there’s something about their character arcs that feels oddly reminiscent of Shane Black, writer of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. When coupled with the specificity of the action set pieces, and the way in which director Ernest R. Dickerson chooses to frame some of those action sequences, at the very least Shane’s influence is palpably felt. That’s not to say Bulletproof is exactly equivalent with Black’s work, but its script feels so close to a Shane Black script in many ways, if merely the table scraps of his beloved proclivities. Also interesting to note is that Wayans starred in Black’s The Last Boy Scout as well.
The evolution of the relationship between Sandler and Wayans pushes Bulletproof into a strange iteration of Midnight Run, morphing into a road movie in which a detective is charged with transporting a prisoner, hilarity ensuing along the way. It’s possible that the reason Bulletproof doesn’t get bogged down in Sandler’s usual shtick is that the film’s structure keeps things constantly moving, both location-wise and in the sense of perpetually arising action scenes. A few childish gags crop up here and there, but ultimately the driving force behind the movie is these two hashing out their differences while trying to avoid the assassins on their tail. By the end, you will not feel like you watched just another Adam Sandler romp.
Now who do we have to write to in order to get more Sandler buddy action comedies?