There’s a sharp contrast between the colorful cartoon fish mural above the surface of an indoor Louisiana public pool and what’s going on beneath the surface. At the deep end, Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang dive into darkened waters for insert shots with an underwater camera for their new film, Bullet to the Head. In the scene, both men have just escaped from a hidden getaway house on the bayou and are swimming to safety.
Bullet to the Head, the set of which ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to visit last year, marks the first theatrical film from director Walter Hill in over a decade. The man behind modern classics like 48 Hours and The Warriors, Hill previously shot in Louisiana for Hard Times, Southern Comfort and Johnny Handsome.
“[New Orleans has] gone through terrible things and is rebuilding,” he says of being back in the Big Easy. “It’s always been this interesting place, very different than any other American city. Social commentary on the changes within the city are best left to others. I’m happy to feel that the city is doing so well and it has made and continues to make a terrific comeback from the tragedy that happened. The other vibe you get from this is not only rebuilding, but a lot of young people are coming here. It’s almost becoming what San Francisco was in the ’60s. It’s perceived as a place where young cats can come and do their thing. It’s a low-rent city, still a bargain by most American standards, and it’s an interesting place. There’s a lot of street activity and there’s a music scene.”
Although New Orleans is doubling for the fictional “Crescent City” in the film, Hill’s intent is for the city’s Cajun charm to nonetheless seep through.
“You try to use it,” he says. “These things are narrative. They’re character. They’re thematic. But they’re also atmosphere. You can use that to your advantage when you get a chance Usually you’re trying to tell a narrative through your characters and have all this stuff bleed in around the edges.”
The plot of Bullet to the Head follows Sylvester Stallone’s Jimmy Bobo, a hitman who is forced to reluctantly team up with a DC cop, Sung Kang’s Taylor Kwon.
“I’m here to investigate my former partner’s shady activities in New Orleans,” says Kang. “My ex-partner was kicked off the force. He went and blackmailed politicians who were lobbying in D.C. and he moved out to New Orleans to cause havoc, hang out with hookers, take drugs, and leech off these politicians who are feeding him blackmail money. So, I’ve been sent to stop him, and when I show up, I realize he’s already been taken out by a hitman, hired by a local faction, and that hitman is Jimmy Bobo and his partner. His partner gets wiped out, so he and I team up. We’re totally opposites, but we are forced to team up to find the guys who did the killing of our partners.”
The back and forth between Stallone and Kang recalls the animosity-based partnership of Hill’s 48 Hours and Kang is quite pleased that Bullet to the Head won’t be going the politically correct route.
“In the past, any time there was an Asian in a film, let’s say, opposite an African-American, the jokes were always on the Asian guy,” he explains. “Like, ‘You don’t speak English!’ or ‘What do you do, kung fu?’ It’s more making fun of his ethnicity, but he couldn’t return it. This is more acceptable, because it’s this old-school guy in his 60s and it’s a guy’s guy kind of thing. He does dirty work for a living, and with his goggles of the world, he sees an Asian guy, he thinks, ‘Whatever, you’re Chinese. Ching Chong. Vietnamese. Whatever.’ And I’m this new generation Asian-American that speaks English, that’s overachieving, that’s athletic and that is also three-dimensional and sexual. Women find him attractive. I can stand up for my own. You put these two people together, and it’s water and oil, and you shake it up, and it becomes humorous. It’s really funny.”
Adding to the partnership is Sarah Shahi’s Lisa, the daughter of Stallone’s Bobo. A tattoo artist who wants very little to do with her father, Lisa winds gets caught up in the action and becomes a romantic interest to Kang’s Kwon.
“He was very in and out of my life as a child,” Shahi says of her on-screen relationship with Stallone’s Bobo. “He comes to me and needs some help. Taylor, Sung’s character, gets shot and I did a year of med school. I’m a very talented girl So he comes to me for some help and this isn’t the first time this has happened. The kind of relationship we have, he only comes to me when he wants something. I’m not too happy when I see him because I know what this is about. I kind of get pulled along into the storyline from that point on.”
Because of her character’s line of work, Shahi’s Lisa is covered in tattoos and she has to be on set three hours before the rest of the cast to get made up.
“I’m covered,” she says. “Covered. Two full sleeves. Some on my chest. Two on my back. No, three on my back. Some on my stomach I went to some tattoo shops, looked at some pictures and spent about six hours reading magazines. Cupcakes were very popular. I have a cupcake on my ass. Sweet cheeks. In the storyline they wanted to have a cat, so I have kind of like a jaguar. The other thing that’s really popular is leopard prints or cheetah prints. A lot of girls have those as a filler. My fillers in between all my tats are all cheetah prints.”
To prepare for the role, Shahi even went so far as to apprentice in a real-life tattoo parlor.
“I practiced on a grapefruit,” she laughs. “That’s apparently what you start out on. Then you move up to a pig. A dead one. I had a great big pig that I was practicing on. The boys were impressed.”
Playing the daughter of Stallone, it was important for Shahi to play Lisa as being every bit as tough as her father.
“She’s a scrapper,” she says. “She’s tough. That was one of the things when I was auditioning for her and that we talked about in my conversations with Walter. She’s f–ing Sylvester Stallone’s daughter. She’s not going to be a victim. She’s definitely not going to go down without a fight either.”
Scrapper or not, Lisa more than meets her match with the film’s big bad, Keegan, played by Jason Momoa.
“[He’s] a mercenary,” Momoa says. “A gun for hire. I work for Morel, who is Adewale [Akinnuoye-Agbaje] and I kill Stallone’s partner and Sung Kang’s partner and they’re trying to kill me. I just play this evil sadistic bastard who likes to shoot people in the head He’s sadistic. I’m playing him that way. I’ve got these contacts. His eyes are black, mine are green. I wanted him to have shark eyes. Cold. He doesn’t have romantic comedy eyes.”
“I understand that, at the end of the day, he’s six foot five and I’m five foot four,” Shahi adds. “I get that. But she has to try to protect herself. She needs to knee him in the balls or tattoo his eye. A chair or something.”
With a title like Bullet to the Head, it’s a sure bet there’s a good amount of gunplay and it’s Momoa’s first time packing heat for a film.
“I grew up with a single mother and I wasn’t out shooting too many guns,” he says. “I got to do this great S.W.A.T. training and shoot all these guns [Stallone and I] have, I think, three encounters and he always gets the upper hand on me. I’ll like bring a knife to a gunfight. Obviously he shoots me in the chest and it just pisses me off, so I steal his daughter and kill his partners.”
That’s not to say that guns are the only weapons in Keegan’s arsenal. Momoa teases a final confrontation with Stallone that has both characters dueling with axes.
“I don’t want to shoot him,” Momoa smiles. “I actually just want to cut him open.”
Still, despite some big action scenes, Hill is quick to point out that he doesn’t view Bullet to the Head as a spectacle film.
“I think action movies on the whole have moved more and more into large spectacle,” he says, “even leaving out super hero movies that seem to me to be more a fantastic science fiction than they are action movies. Action movies, to me, are dramas with recognizable human beings that are in extraordinary situations. Now there’s a lot of elasticism within that definition and there are certainly not very realistic and they never were; the Steve McQueen movies, or Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, whatever you want from the old days. This movie is not a big spectacle movie and although these kinds of films don’t usually get reviewed this way, or usually approached this way, it’s largely a movie that is presented through the characters. The drama is character driven.”
Bullet to the Head hits theaters February 1.