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Bullet to the Head
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by Brett Gallman

"Tonight is what it means to be old."
3 stars

With Walter Hill at the wheel, “Bullet to the Head’ brings things full circle a bit; after three decades of other filmmakers riffing on “48 Hours,” the godfather of the buddy-action genre has returned with this no-frills throwback that feels more redundant than triumphant. It does vaguely recall the former glory of both Hill and star Sylvester Stallone, but it feels more like a lost movie these two might have made back in the 90s. In other words, it seems like you’ve spent the last 20 years watching bits and pieces of “Bullet in the Head” on TNT.

The mismatched duo in this one is career criminal Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) and detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang). After Bobo knocks off a dirty ex-cop, his employer dispatches another hitman (Jason Momoa) to cover his tracks; however, he only succeeds in shanking Bobo’s partner (Jon Seda) and makes himself the target of Bobo’s revenge. Meanwhile, Kwon is more interested in figuring out who’s pulling the strings of all these hitmen, so he enters an uneasy alliance with Bobo in order to unravel the mystery.

“Bullet to the Head” almost feels like Walter Hill’s Greatest Hits. The odd couple conceit makes “48 Hours” an obvious reference point, but the Bayou setting subtly echoes the rough and tumble elements of “Southern Comfort,” and the whole thing is soaked in the comic-book aesthetic that defined “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire.” With so many elements being recycled, the movie expectedly feels like a reheated dish straight out of the microwave.

But the good news is that it still tastes pretty good, mostly because Hill still has a boisterous sense of swagger. Even though the film eventually gets tangled up in an unnecessarily convoluted plot involving a deposed African warlord’s land-grabbing scheme, it hardly matters as the film chugs along to Steve Mazzaro’s blues-rock riffs and the bone-crunching violence. More than anything else, Hill has retained his ruggedness, as “Bullet to the Head” is a tough, brutal movie that’s unapologetically lined with tussles, beatdowns, and headshots (the film wastes no opportunity to live up to its title). The action isn’t pretty, but it doesn’t need to be since Hill and fight choreographer J.J. Perry instead opt to capture the physicality of it all. Every gunshot, punch, and hip-toss land with visceral authority and recall Hill’s penchant for thunderous, thrilling violence.

Underneath the violence is a slightly less satisfying buddy-action movie. This genre is obviously only as good as its leads, and, while Stallone and Kang are fine in the roles, the chemistry between them devolves into predictable, one-note jabs about Bobo’s age and Kwon’s ethnicity (the token racism is another call-back to “48 Hours” but feels rather tame here). The two never quite click like other great duos, perhaps because the film veers towards being a Stallone vehicle and leaves Kang with little to do besides play it cool as the straight-laced cop.

At least Stallone is playing a genuinely compelling and flawed character; after reprising Rocky and Rambo and then simply playing Old Man Stallone in “The Expendables,” it’s cool to see him inhabit something a little different and off-putting. Bobo is kind of the hitman with a heart of gold (he spares a hooker at one point), but he also has no qualms about ruthlessly killing his targets, either. There are even brief moments when his relationship with Kwon feels truly contentious because he’s so unrepentant about his hatred of cops and his criminal lifestyle. However, since “Bullet to the Head” isn’t really all that concerned with ruffling feathers, Stallone keeps the character low-key and charming despite himself as he growls and grunts his way through the movie in laconic (but likeable) badass mode (so he’s kind of like Rambo with a sense of humor, unless Cobra already claimed that mantle).

The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag, particularly the rogues gallery, which interestingly gets more interesting from the top down. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the aforementioned warlord, and his biggest claim to fame is some sort of deformity that requires him to walk around with permanent crutches. In his employ is a shady lawyer, which gives Christian Slater a chance to be a real shit-kicking weasel. His turn is the opposite of just about everyone else’s in the film since it’s a little broad and silly, but it’s fun to see Slater emerge from the ghettos of DTV.

On the lowest end of the totem pole is the film’s most memorable villain, Keegan, the meathead mercenary with a code of honor played by Momoa; only marginally more functional as a character than the brain-damaged Conan from 2011’s reboot, Keegan allows Momoa to simmer and glower until the climax. At that point, he suddenly grows a bit of a personality by insisting he and Bobo duke it out with giant axes, and he even takes a moment to wax poetic about the firefighters who once saved the building that his warlord boss is about to tear down in favor of a shopping mall. Or something like that—“Bullet to the Head” is kind of wonderfully dumb in the sense that everyone is just a cog in a giant machine that no one particularly cares about (that includes the film itself, as it laughably cuts through the over-plotted nonsense to get down to brass tacks--er, axes, I guess).

There’s also Sarah Shahi , who is serviceable in the role of Bobo’s daughter, who really serves as a glorified plot device to take the edge off of her father (see, he’s not all that bad!) and to predictably raise the stakes during the film’s climax.

I wish there were more to her than that, but she’s indicative of “Bullet to the Head” as a whole; with a title like that, I don’t think it’s even aspiring to be very much despite having one of the old time greats at the helm. It’s been a good decade since Hill even directed a feature, and you have to wonder what drew him to this material if not the familiarity. Maybe it seems a little perfunctory at this point in Hill’s career, but it’s an enjoyable effort that would remind us of a better age of action movies if it were really all that memorable.

If the attempt here was to recapture the glory of “48 Hours,” I can’t say it was successful; however, I reckon this is about as perfectly okay as “Another 48 Hours.” Thankfully, I can’t make the joke that the movie only feels 48 hours long, so there’s that.

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originally posted: 02/05/13 14:28:03
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User Comments

2/08/16 FireWithFire Sylvester Stallone is a bloody load of old rubbish. 1 stars
1/18/14 Monday Morning Hard boiled comes to mind. Outstanding. 5 stars
7/21/13 mr.mike Good home vid rental. 3 stars
2/19/13 Waldemar Walas It kept me entertained. 3 stars
2/04/13 Jeff Wilder Routine stuff. But entertaining enough. 3 stars
2/04/13 action movie fan sly is good movie decent but expendables 2 is better 3 stars
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  01-Feb-2013 (R)
  DVD: 16-Jul-2013


  DVD: 16-Jul-2013

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