Bullet to the Head (Review)

(2/01/13; Action)
Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jason Momoa
SCR: Walter Hill, Alessandro Camon; based on Du Plomb Dans La Tete by Alexis Nolent
DIR: Walter Hill
MPAA: R for strong violence, bloody images, language, some nudity and brief drug use.
1 hour 31 mins
(Warner Bros.)

Bullet to the Head is a monstrosity, the kind of Frankenmovie so endlessly stitched together, it’s hard to imagine what the original vision might have been. Unless the intent was to lovingly recreate the slapped-together laziness of a direct-to-video Steven Seagal flick, it’s hard to fathom why Sylvester Stallone would have signed on for this. But more about that later.

Who cares about the plot? It’s a revenge deal about how New Orleans hit man Jimmy Bonomo (nicknamed Jimmy Bobo, get it?) and his partner get set up when a job goes wrong. Yeah, yeah, they messed with the wrong guy. Somebody’s gonna pay. And the audience is the collateral damage. He lets the Russian hooker in the shower live, so he must be one of the good (bad) guys.

Why should we care? We don’t. So when cop Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang) shows up to investigate an off-screen back-story, we don’t care about that either. Convenient, though, that the other corpse in the morgue just happens to be involved. The script throws Jimmy and Kwan together (of course they don’t trust each other), forcing scenes that make the comradery in the Rush Hour movies seem like high art. Either of these guys could walk away and chalk it up to one of those things, and live a good life, but you know and I know that we’re not getting off that easy.

And with nothing on the line, Bullet to the Head is little more than scene after scene of our reluctant partners learning the name of the next guy up the ladder, easily finding them, playing good cop and bad cop, an action scene breaking out, and the bad guy getting dead.

Formula can be a good thing. A great many buddy cop/buddy crook movies, 48 HRS (1982) and the Lethal Weapon films among them, have thrived on a familiarity that fits like a well-worn shoe. The most successful ones add new layers, or even subvert the formula. Others simply have good chemistry and coast to the finish line with a pile of dead bodies dotting the road.

It’s also worth pointing out that the director here is Walter Hill, a guy who knows his way around action-comedies with mismatched heroes. He created the genre with 48 HRS, but about the only thing he recycles from his resume is the hammer fight from Streets of Fire (1984). Here, it’s hatchets, and Stallone gets off one of the very few good lines from the script: “What are we, fucking vikings?”

The cop-and-hit man idea could have been mined for some interesting ideas. But the most we get is that Jimmy carries around his own booze (ahem, Bullet Brandy, get it?) and hates any kind of modern technology like GPS or Google. I guess that’s supposed to make him endearingly “old school.”

Stallone can be a decent actor, even quite good in the right role, but he has less to do here then he did in Judge Dredd. All he is required to do is glower, shoot people, stab people, glower some more, and then display some of that latent sincere Stallone softness that crawls out from behind the crustiness. He’s a freakish physical specimen in his mid-60s, with a bulging torso, but even that seems played for laughs.

Kang brings absolutely nothing. He’s a blank slate who’s not very physical and whose expression never changes. Okay, he looks constipated the entire film, but after a while, his cop-speak becomes laughable.

Jason Momoa is Keegan, paid muscle for the big bad guy, and he spends 90% of the film out-glowering Stallone, until they finally get to exchange words before the big hatchet fight. Momoa is so well-spoken and articulate, that the movie would have benefited by giving him more of a role.

The only character that engenders any sympathy is Lisa (Sarah Shahi), Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter. Inked from head to toe, she is alive in every frame in a role that defies convention. She’s tough but not in a Linda Hamilton way. Her toughness is a shield against getting hurt, and despite her punky appearance, she is remarkably decent. Shahi has been good on TV before (The L Word, Fairly Legal, Chicago Fire). Let’s hope her movie roles start getting better.

Christian Slater shows up for a few scenes as an obnoxious high-powered attorney or something, but isn’t believable for a second. It’s almost as if the allure of hanging around with naked women was too much to resist.

Bullet to the Head has been delayed a handful of times and the production was a troubled one. It shows. There are visual inconsistencies from scene to scene, the editing style switches from flashy bursts to crisp cuts. There’s a nary a laugh for the first half hour, and then forced, painful tough guy comedy. It’s a bloody mess.

Stallone really should know better. His career has survived more knockouts than Rocky Balboa, but he doesn’t seem to understand the laws of actor physics. He’s a solid performer who, when he takes a chance on something like Cop Land, or even downplays his own personae in The Expendables, can be a powerful screen presence. He should be playing into his legend, not hobbling it with easy, lazy crap like this.

In this phase in his career, he should be more concerned with giving the lines on his face a workout than his ridiculous biceps. Otherwise, he’ll end up in a new fight: against Steven Seagal for the heavyweight title of “king of the DVD bargain bin.”


Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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