Bullet to the Head was Walter Hill’s long awaited (by me anyway) return to directing after a ten-year absence. When it came out in February it was not well received and not screened in advance for critics, but now it’s out on home formats it’s time for an agonising re-appraisal of the film.
Taken on its own terms and watched late enough at night, Bullet to the Head is actually quite enjoyable. The problem people seem to have with the film is its corniness and somewhat outdated machismo. Those who love Walter Hill’s previous work however, know that he hasn’t really changed the type of films he makes but the world around him has moved on. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its mis-matched buddy leads. One a floppy haired Asian superstar who looks like a male model and the other Sylvester Stallone.
Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo (!!) a New Orleans hitman who at the start along with his fellow scumbag Lewis kills an ex-cop who is in deep over his head. The man mountain that is Jason Momoa plays a mercenary who then tries to off Bobo and only succeeds in killing Lewis. The dead cop brings in the attentions of Washington DC detective Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang) who finds his investigation hampered by crooked cops who are more than happy to snuff him out if he asks too many questions. Kwan and Bobo end up teaming up to find Lewis’ killers as well as uncover who is pulling the strings and their plans for the city.
It could be accused of many things but subtlety is not one of Bullet to the Head’s selling points. The manner in which Bobo and Kwan come together is frankly preposterous, amounting to a phone call along the lines of “Hey you’re a hitman, I’m a cop, let’s have a drink” and from there we get the usual bickering with what passes for smart mouth in today’s action films. Stallone and Kang are no De Niro and Grodin, hell they aren’t even a Lawrence and Robbins but they do their best and it’s just about acceptable. There is some kind of sub sub text somewhere about greedy people swooping in on devastated New Orleans and exploiting it, but this is lost amidst grunting, explosions and gunfire and it’s just as well because nobody should be forced to think whilst watching a film like this.
Walter Hill hasn’t lost it with this kind of material even if the DNA has changed. The fights are brutal in a manner rarely seen in over choreographed action flicks. Every act of violence and slam against a wall seems like it really hurts and fittingly for the title, there are many people shot in the head. Hill sadly couldn’t get his regular composer Ry Cooder in to score the film and so we have Steve Mazzaro doing a pretty good Cooder impression where impressively at the start the sounds of a train segue nicely into the main theme.
Surprising me most of all about this film though is the fact that Stallone is actually trying again. For a while now he has seemed like he is just coasting, especially through the Expendables films but it seems as if he hasn’t really been alive on-screen since Rocky Balboa. In this role he has dimension and character and reacts to situations and expresses emotion and frustration instead of just world-weary mumbling. He doesn’t have the dialogue to back up his performance but it’s heartening to see the old guy do his thing again and he may well have another great role in him. The younger and more charismatic Jason Momoa makes a great villain and counterpoint to Stallone’s character as a man without principles or rules and their final axe duel is a great, adrenaline fuelled scene.
For best effect, turn off your brain at 11pm on a Saturday and watch Bullet to the Head. It’s light, fun and silly but also a reminder of a bygone age of action cinema without a tongue punching through its cheek.
Extras: There is only a brief making of, loudly entitled; ‘Mayhem Inc.’. This is your typical puff piece which functions more as a Stallone appreciation video rather than offering any insight. The film originally had Running Scared director Wayne Kramer in place and he was fired after clashing with Stallone and Thomas Jane was cast in the Kwan role but producer Joel Silver then fired him too. None of this is mentioned, instead every goes on about how cool ‘Sly’ is and how he is an American Legend. Jason Momoa also refers to himself as Conan, which is sweet and a little troubling.