BLOGS

Bullet To the Head: Stop! Or Sly Will Shoot

by Ethan Alter February 1, 2013 6:01 am
<i>Bullet To the Head</i>: Stop! Or Sly Will Shoot

Leave it to a pair of old pros to teach all those young whippersnappers out there how to make a crude, violent, racist, exploitative, T&A-filled and altogether brainless action movie. Dumb as a bag of rocks and as blunt as a... well, a bullet to the head, Bullet To the Head brings director Walter Hill and star Sylvester Stallone together for the first time in their respective careers. It proves to be a fruitful collaboration, with the two of them bringing out the best in each other. Now, that's not to say that movie itself is any good, because it's not... at least, not in the typical definition of "good" where elements like storytelling, character development and thematic subtleties are taken into account. No, this particular brand of "good" is more sensory in nature; while watching Bullet To the Head you're acutely aware of how stupid and pointless the whole enterprise, yet at the same time the movie successfully delivers a steady stream of short, sharp shocks to your system that keep you engaged. Put another way, it's bad, but it's never, ever boring.

And that's the big thing that separates Bullet from another recent star vehicle for an over-the-hill action star, The Last Stand. That movie eventually delivered on its promise of loud, dumb action, but getting there was a trial. Hill wastes little time going for the jugular... literally. The movie opens with Stallone's improbably named, appropriately grizzled and scarily 'roided-out (seriously, what special cocktail has Sly been imbibing to get his arms -- and veins -- that size?) New Orleans-based hitman Jimmy Bobo in the midst of his latest job: assassinating a high-priced target with a few punches to the gut followed by, like the title says, a bullet in the head. (As we come to learn later, that's Bobo's measure of a man -- his ability to fire a kill shot into a person's brain without remorse or hesitation.)

What happens next is anything but ordinary, not to mention anything but logical. Bobo and his red-shirt partner -- whose name you really don't need to know -- are double-crossed by their employers and set upon by buff brute Khal Drogo Keegan (Jason Momoa). His comrade dies, but Bobo gets away and promptly vows a mission of vengeance. He's aided in his quest by visiting Washington D.C. detective Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang), in town to look into the death of the dude Bobo offed in the first scene, who apparently was an ex-District of Columbia cop fired for corruption. Please don't concern yourself with keeping track of these details because, honestly, they don't matter; the long and short of it is that this straight-laced and decidedly wimpy cop is forced to work with this gruff and devotedly lethal killer. In between laying waste to Louisiana's entire criminal underworld (led by the double act of a douchey real estate tycoon played by a perfectly cast Christian Slater and some kind of a Nigerian con man played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje a.k.a. Mr. Eko from Lost) while getting to the bottom of a mostly incomprehensible case, the two bicker and fight about stupid shit, not unlike Stallone's most famous odd couple, Ray Tango and Gabriel Cash.

Bullet To the Head was apparently adapted from a French comic book and I'd love to know if such sparkling, spirited banter as "You had me at 'Fuck you'" and the steady stream of derogatory Asian jokes can be credited to the source material or screenwriter Alessandro Camon or, more likely, was just made up by Stallone on the spot right after Hill called "Action!" Either way, Bullet is proudly retro in its lingo and general M.O., but not in an ironic, self-aware manner. Where Stallone's Expendables franchise openly winks at the audience with its '80s callbacks, Hill refuses to play that game, paying homage to that vanished age of action cinema (of which his films were a key part) by making a movie that's actually part of that ilk instead of commenting on it. (Although there is one sequence that seems designed, in part, as parody -- a costume house party that plays like an outtake from the extended orgy sequence Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, complete with naked ladies and kooky masks.) His star is more than willing to make the same commitment, portraying Bobo as a straight-up killer with no remorse, no soft edges and only one significant weak spot, his comely daughter, Lisa (Sarah Shahi). This is actually a surprisingly effective performance by Stallone, free of his late-career trend towards self-parody. He still scores some laughs, but they are rarely at his own expense.

I wish I could say that Bullet To the Head is as top-notch in the action department as such Hill classics as The Warriors and Southern Comfort. It's not, unfortunately; whether on set or in the editing room, the decision was made to use the same Cusineart approach to action choreography and cutting that dominates the genre today. Every scene has been edited to within an inch of its life, including that big climactic bout between Stallone and Momoa featured in all the trailers where they go at each other with axes. To compensate for the piss-poor shooting, Hill ups the volume in these scenes significantly so that the audience feels every punch, every gunshot and every manly grunt in their bones. (The GPF -- grunts per frame -- of the Stallone/Momoa duel is particularly high; if you closed your eyes, you might think you were watching a documentary about the mating cycle of warthogs.) This approach is no substitute for a cleanly composed action set-piece, but it does fit the movie's general "Eff you" ethos. Want a great story with memorable characters? Eff you. Want a profound meditation on being an old man in a game populated by young, hungry killers? Eff you. Want action scenes that are a model of the craft or, failing that, at least intelligible? Eff you. Want an unapologetically pointless and violent action movie offering minimal thought and maximum mayhem from two old guys who know the score? Eff you... and enjoy.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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