Sylvester Stallone as Jimmy Bobo
Sung Kang as Detective Taylor Kwon
Jason Momoa as Keegan
Christian Slater as Marcus Baptiste
Sarah Shahi as Lisa Bopo
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Morel
Jon Seda as Louis Blanchard
Holt McCallany as Hank Greely
Directed by Walter Hill
You know why we like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” so much? Because it makes us fondly remember the adventure films of yore without actually being one of them. That’s the trick of looking to the past that way, just looking without diving into it. Just like there’s nothing wrong with looking back at the adventure serials of the ’30s and ’40s, there’s nothing wrong with looking back at the action films of the ’80s as long as you’re aware that when you’re replicating one of them you’re not actually ‘replicating’ one of them.
Or else you’ll end up with something like “Bullet to the Head.”
For those of you old enough to actually remember the ’80s, there was a time when Sylvester Stallone was an honest to god icon, one of the hallmarks of muscle-bound, over the top, ridiculously violent action films which were our summer fare back then.
At the same time, one of the better practitioners of that peculiar genre was Walter Hill, a protégé of the ’70s (where he co-wrote the original “Alien”) who alternated between spare, philosophical westerns like “The Long Riders” and “Geronimo” and gleefully audience-oriented action entertainment like “48 Hours” and “Red Heat.” Along with Richard Donner and John McTiernan, Hill wrote the action film style guide of the ’80s. Surely putting him together with ’80s figurehead Stallone should create the kind of wistful, more adult look back at that period of rampant adolescence?
Stallone has built his recent resurgence on playing into that ’80s nostalgia with irony already with his “Expendables” films, so perhaps it’s understandable that he has decided to approach “Bullet to the Head” with as few winks and nods as possible. Which is too bad as it desperately needs some.
Instead we get the straight ahead Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) an old school mob hit man working the mean streets of New Orleans, at the tail end of a long life of crime and violence and all too aware of the fact. He has as close to no morals as a man can get, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a code, and when a client decides it’s better to kill Bobo and his partner (Jon Seda) than pay them well, it’s a Stallone movie so you know what happens next.
To be fair, Stallone actually is quite excellent in the role, filling Bobo’s gravelly monologue with just the right mixture of weariness and gravitas to keep the film anchored even when it gets ridiculous. Unfortunately, the film itself (adapted from a French graphic novel) isn’t up to the task of knowing what to do with that as it veers wildly in tone trying to figure out what sort of movie it is.
A lot of that comes down to the terrible idea to saddle Bopo with Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) as it tries to decide if it is a straight ahead action film or a buddy cop comedy action film. It obviously works better when it is trying to be the former, not least because Kang and Stallone have absolutely no chemistry together. That might not really be either actor’s fault so much as the script by Hill and Alessandro Camon (“The Messenger”) which is by far the weakest part of the film. It has no idea what do with Kwon or why he’s there except to lead Bopo to the next rung on the crime ladder, before quickly becoming absolutely useless. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear most of Hill’s direction to Kang must have been stand around and act ineffectual.’
But at least he’s the not the only wasted actor as both Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Christian Slater are given a pair of the lamest villains in recent screen history with which they have nothing to do. Slater in particular gets probably the worst dialogue of any character in the film.
Worse, the dialogue is terrible in an extremely generic way as characters have a tendency to talk only in plot points, telling each other information they must already know solely for the benefit of the audience. If it weren’t for Bobo’s occasionally clever internal monologue, “Bullet to the Head” would actually be better off as a silent film.
All that said, “Bullet” does what it sets out to do decently enough and from time to time is genuinely entertaining. And if Hill has no idea what to do with his characters or story, he still knows how to put together a good action scene. A final fight between Bobo and enforcer Keegan (Jason Momoa) with fire axes seems like could have come right out of “Streets of Fire” way back when.
At its ridiculous best “Bullet” reminds us why we liked Stallone in the first place and what it is he does well. But time has moved on, for him and for us and there’s a point where looking back this way stops being entertaining and starts to become sad. “Bullet to the Head” treads that line very, very finely and while it doesn’t quite trip on it, it’s probably for the best if Stallone doesn’t push his luck twice.