Bullet to the Head brings Sylvester Stallone center stage into the action genre that made him a legend – this time without the support system of his macho ensemble of friends as seen in The Expendables franchise. Does Sly still have the chops to make it in the modern age of stylized action flicks with their complicated protagonists (modern Bond, Bourne, etc…)?
The story revolves around a career hit man named Jimmy Bonomo (Stallone) who is double-crossed by his employers, resulting in the death of his partner Louis (Jon Seda) at the hands of an unstoppable killing machine named Keegan (Jason Momoa). Jimmy is approached by a crafty cop named Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) who wants to use Jimmy’s beef to help solve his own case. Only Kwon must learn that in Jimmy’s (under)world, the rule of law and order is no rule at all.
Bullet to the Head is a about as conventional and dunder-headed an action flick as they make – but that’s not to say that it’s all bad. Thanks to some lasting charisma on Stallone’s part, great chemistry between him and Kang – not to mention all the brutal, bloody thrills that action heads look for in their beloved genre – the film turns out to be an enjoyable enough B-movie ride.
At the helm is the legendary writer/producer/director Walter Hill, which is a lot of the reason why Bullet to the Head is at all memorable – and definitely well-crafted in a lot of respects. This film plays like a more modern and violent version of 48 Hrs. – a movie (and its sequel) which Hill both wrote and directed. Add films like Red Heat, The Getaway, Extreme Prejudice and Last Man Standing to his writing and/or directing resume, and it’s clear that – at least on a “B” level – Hill is no stranger to action.
Fortunately for fans of the genre, Bullet to the Head delivers on that front. While the fight choreography might not be on the level of modern martial arts-influenced action films, some old-school smart sequencing by Hill results in a number of set pieces that deliver visceral thrills that few of those modern films can manage. It could be argued that – for better or worse – this is one of the most authentic ’80s/’90s action throwbacks we’ve gotten (sorry, Expendables…).
On the humor side: the same racially-charged banter that made the 48 hrs. Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte pairing so fun is replicated in the relationship between Jimmy and Kwon. You could make a drinking game out of the amount of racist Asian jokes this movie throws around – so be warned if you’re sensitive on that front. In terms of overarching narrative; Alessandro Camon’s (The Messenger) adaptation of Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel manages to make a mess of even the most basic storyline (climb the ladder of scumbags). Lots of silly voiceover and hokey dialogue – thankfully, the banter between our principal characters (Kwon and Jimmy) balances out oor attempts at drama, and even the climatic moment when the whole story just comes apart at the seams. In short: the film is enough fun to forgive the obvious stupidity.
Stallone may be getting older, but aside from his questionable toy-soldier posture and walk, he’s still a captivating onscreen badass. Jimmy is one of the more crass and violent roles Sly has been given to play, and he embraces it wholeheartedly. There are enough shades of complexity to put him above being a one-note cliche – but he’s not exactly the deep portrait of a man, either.
Sung Kang (star of films like Fast Five) has always brought a sort of cool and laid-back charisma – which he puts to great use making Kwon a more sensible (and tech savvy) foil for Jimmy. It’d be easy for a relative unknown to be steamrolled by Sly’s braggadocio swagger – but Kang definitely holds his own and – despite many jokes at his expense – makes a serious case for Asian actors headlining American action flicks outside the usual stereotypical paradigms. That’s to say: He’s a solid enough leading man in his own right.
Bullet to the Head also comes with a somewhat surprising lineup of famous faces in supporting roles, including Christian Slater sleaze-balling it as a corrupt lawyer (who throws a pretty sweet party) and Lost star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays what may be the (strangest?) (most original?) semi-crippled villainous mastermind seen in an action flick. Sarah Shahi is a pretty hot addition as the female tattoo artist from Jimmy’s personal life, whom Kwon takes a liking to.
However, the real star of the show (besides Sly, of course) is Jason Momoa – best known for his roles in shows like Stargate: Atlantis and Game of Thrones. As Keegan, Momoa takes the henchman role to a whole other level – many of the film’s slickest, hardest-hitting and downright sick sequences are totally owned by the brutish action star. There is good reason to be genuinely concerned for our protagonists in this film. By the time Stallone and Momoa are swinging axes at each other, action junkies will have gotten their money’s worth. Those hoping for a more intellectually-stimulating time? The feeling of absurdity will be about peak-high at that point.
Bullet to the Head also has the proud distinction of being one of the most obvious product-plugging films seen in a long time. We even get one great scene wholly dedicated to plugging Bullit Bourbon (for a second or third time) which - as a proud drinker of said bourbon since 2005 – is so shameless that it can’t help but be funny. This movie definitely has a nice dose of kitsch.
Action fans, saddle up. Sly fans, saddle up. Those not into gritty and brutal looks at machismo characters bloodying each other up and talking foul, move on. From the title screen to the deafeningly-loud gunshot that precedes the title screen, Bullet to the Head fires forward on its intended mission of mayhem – and you get the feeling it could care less what you think about it.
Bullet to the Head is now in theaters. It is 91 minutes and is Rated R for scenes of violence, gore, sex, nudity, profanity, alcohol/drugs/smoking and frightening or intense scenes.