'Bullet to the Head': Stallone gets down to business
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
To regular moviegoers, "Bullet to the Head" likely looks generic enough: another star vehicle for Sylvester Stallone in which he hopes to profitably fan the embers of his action-star credibility one more time. Recent efforts in this arena haven't done much to advance Stallone's status, the genre, Western civilization itself, and so on, but, then again, the ensemble shoot-kick-explode-'em-up "The Expendables" did well enough to warrant, or maybe I should say "warrant," a sequel.
What makes "Bullet to the Head" a more-intriguing-than-average proposition for the movie buff, however, is that it's the first feature directorial credit Walter Hill has had to his name in over a decade. Hill's '70s and '80s run of action classics and near-classics includes such titles as "The Driver," "The Long Riders" and the blockbuster "48 Hours," starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. He's also the name behind more eccentric fare like "The Warriors" and "Streets of Fire," and was a producer and co-writer on the horror monolith "Alien." In recent years he's been a creative force on cult-loved TV fare such as "Deadwood," but not much going on in terms of features. He took over this project, rumor has it, after star Stallone had the ever-popular "creative differences" with a prior director. Lucky for us, whether we're buffs or regular moviegoers.
Adapted from a graphic novel that itself would appear to have been inspired by the kind of movies with which Hill and, to a certain extent, Stallone made their names, "Bullet to the Head" is a brisk, enjoyable picture that wastes little time getting down to business. The setup is as old as they come: Cop and criminal are compelled to team up to avenge losses on either side. That was the deal in "48 Hours," and while this is no "48 Hours," it's not negligible either. Stallone plays veteran hit man Jimmy Bobo, who, after losing a pal to a whacked-out mercenary, gets down to cases with Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang of "Fast Five") a by-the-book detective of Asian extraction. The raw and funny racial politics of the Nick Nolte-Eddie Murphy dynamic of "48 Hours" is replaced here by various characters referring to Kwan as Confucius, Kato and Oddjob. Stallone sarcastically refers to Kwan's "samurai" ethic, and Kwan tetchily responds that he's Korean. It's funny because it's not funny. Similarly, Kwan's promise that once he and Bobo blow the lid off the New Orleans real estate corruption scheme that the cop is going to have to take the criminal "down" is pretty commonplace, as is the way Kwan is divested of his naiveté.
While not likely to win points for originality, the movie has a lot of nicely contained and then expended energy. New Orleans is a pretty popular place to shoot movies in recent years, but Hill actually goes to the trouble of putting some of its atmosphere on the screen. Furthermore, the movie's got a bit more of a reality principle attached to it: The hot brunette tattoo artist Stallone's character has an attachment to (Sarah Shahi) is his daughter, not a girlfriend. The bad guys, particularly those played by Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, bring some juice to their stock roles, and the action is, as usual in a Hill film, both witty and bone-crunching. And Hill coaxes Stallone's most credible performance since I can't remember when, by having him do even less than his already minimalist performance style generally allows. "Bullet in the Head" is, honestly, a movie you'll likely forget not too long after you see it, but you also won't mind happening upon it on cable at some point in the future. That's not nothing.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.