Bullet to the Head is an ode to the kind of movies director Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hrs.) and star Sylvester Stallone used to make in their 1980s heyday. Even though this is their first time collaborating, the two are clearly cut from the same cloth; worse, they both share in the delusion that modern audiences want to relive mediocre action cinema. The Expendables films at least have the gimmick of uniting some of the biggest action movie heroes of the 80s and 90s, but Bullet to the Head brings things back to a tired buddy cop scenario, pairing Stallone with Sung Kang (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) as the unlikely duo goes out for revenge. This film would have been terrible even among its competition if it was released thirty years ago, but it’s especially awful when dumped in the early months of the 2013 movie landscape.
Sly plays Jimmy Bobo, a hitman with a conscience whose partner is killed in the opening minutes by a ruthless mercenary (Jason Momoa) after a job didn’t go exactly as planned. Bobo wants revenge, but get this: his old school ways don’t mesh with the tech-savvy methods of the Asian detective (Kang) who teams up with him to get to the bottom of all this, which – as you can imagine – results in some totally hiLARious banter between the two of them. There’s a half-baked plot about land development and bribing Senators that’s supposed to justify the existence of Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s villainous characters, but we all know from the trailers that the real showdown comes in the form of an ax battle between Stallone and Momoa in a condemned warehouse. Did I mention Stallone’s character has an estranged tattoo artist daughter (Sarah Shahi) who gets kidnapped and then becomes the de facto love interest for the straight-laced detective?
(*sighs, drops chin to chest, closes eyes, rubs bridge of nose*)
Stallone scowls and mumbles through his lines in tones so low it’s as if his throat has been replaced with a pit of gravel, but he manages to do a decent job of selling his performance considering how terrible the script is. He delivers some of the most generic voiceover narration ever committed to the page and fires off racist, stereotypical, and ignorant comments about Kang’s ethnicity as quickly as he pulls the trigger on brutal headshots. It’s Rush Hour minus the personality of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, but instead of being funny, the insults in Bullet to the Head are so politically incorrect they come off as cringe-inducing.
Kang doesn’t seem to care what’s happening, but he isn’t miscast so much as his entire character should be cut out of the film. He shines as the laid-back Han in the Fast and Furious movies while he plays off of meatheads like Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, but when he’s left alone to deal with Stallone’s rouge tough guy behavior, he’s way out of his element. As an actor, he doesn’t seem to get the vibe the old guys on set are going for, and he seems as out of place as this movie does being set in New Orleans. (Characters wander through a jazz band performing in the street just to ram the point home). Momoa and Agbaje are all physicality and no charisma, and though Christian Slater tries his best as a whiny bad guy, you can never shake the feeling that he, like this entire film, belongs in another era.
Even though the movie is bad, at least it quickly bounds from one set piece to another, and Stallone leaves such a trail of blood in his path that his devotees might actually find a few moments enjoyable. Considering Hill is a relic from another time, though, I was expecting the action to be a lot more coherent; instead, he seems to have fallen prey to fast cutting and overbearing musical cues, so we’re robbed of any memorable action beats. The sound design is an aural assault, with every punch sounding as if it would kill the recipient upon delivery, and though the characters don’t react realistically to the violence they encounter, I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt bruised walking out of the theater. It’s clear Hill wants you to feel something, but I’m not sure that “annoyance and a headache” meet his criteria. Despite the movie’s overwhelming shortcomings, credit goes to Hill and his team for bringing the film in at a brisk 90 minutes.
I’m sorry to disappoint those who hoped the teaming of Hill and Stallone would result in recapturing a slice of action cinema’s past glory, but Bullet to the Head should have stayed in the chamber. Until next time…