Bullet to the Head
dir. Walter Hill
Release Date: Feb 01, 13
Apparently, the theme of this year’s cinematic dump season is “aging actors make movies about their age, but substitute rote standards for anything resembling the actual contemplation of mortality.” The latest installment of this depressing progression, Bullet to the Head, features Sylvester Stallone as (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a loose cannon with a score to settle who won’t let anybody, including the police, get in his way. One could probably buy the 80s action movie Mad Libs book and be able to fill out the entirety of Bullet to the Head’s plot, such as it exists. And sometimes those clichés can be a ton of fun, as illustrated by the 40% or so of last month’s The Last Stand that managed to tap into decades-old nostalgia the right way. But when they’re not, as in much of Bullet, they just become tedious.
Consider the tropes. Bullet follows the ridiculously monikered James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone), a contract killer whose unwillingness to break his personal code (no women or children, half the money upfront) leads to him sparing the life of a prostitute during a hit. After his partner is stabbed to death in a bar by a hulking mercenary for hire (Jason Momoa, of the underrated Conan the Barbarian remake), Jimmy ends up on the run from the law. As these things tend to go, the man Jimmy killed turns out to have ties to a major investigation into a New Orleans land development deal. This is sign of impending failure #1, because if Superman Returns or Star Wars Episode 1 taught the world anything, it’s that basing your action film around real estate espionage is the least exciting thing imaginable to base your action film around.
Because director Walter Hill (The Warriors) is still stuck in his prime era (only interrupted by CSI-quality visual oversaturation from time to time), Jimmy needs an ethnic foil to play off and spout offensive one-liners about. Bullet offers up Detective Kwon (Sung Kang from Fast Five), who’s ostensibly the co-lead of the film but mostly takes punishment from Stallone and serves as one of the worst movie cops in recent memory. Det. Kwon does things like continually insist that he’s taking Stallone into the station once their investigation is over (Kwon likewise lost a partner in the recent past) and regularly update a pair of shifty-eyed cops on his investigation. Bullet goes to no shortage of pains to convince audiences that the former is a reasonable possibility and the latter will end in anything other than a hackneyed plot twist, but accomplishes neither. Likewise, the film’s subplot involving Jimmy’s daughter (Sarah Shahi) seems to appear and disappear whenever the film feels like breaking from its pattern of “Kwon finds a guy to investigate, Stallone imposes his will, somebody dies, repeat,” which isn’t often enough to stop the relatively short Bullet from feeling glacially paced.
Airing such grievances against a film like Bullet almost feels superfluous to a degree, given that it’s clearly designed as a showcase for a) Stallone’s continued virility as a leading man and b) New Orleans as a new action movie town. The local color of the film rings false, lacking the sort of genuine street-level seediness of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, for instance. Here, there are marching bands and masquerades with topless women (as blatant and irrelevant a ripoff of Eyes Wide Shut as you could expect to see in 2013), but nothing that really makes one think that Bullet to the Head couldn’t have been filmed anywhere else in the world. With respect to Stallone, he can still execute a convincing fight scene, but the scruffy charm of his early performances has long since been eroded into stone-faced self-parody. Jimmy feels not only like a character Stallone’s played before, but one that several other actors have played before, often with better humor than he manages. By the time he works his way to the top of the real estate conspiracy, you’ll mostly just find yourself wishing that a different actor was fighting a different villain in a more interesting film than Bullet to the Head.