Bullet to the Head Review
Guns don't kill people. Bullets do.
After a ten-year theatrical hiatus, Walter Hill returns to the big screen and the macho genre that made his name by hauling Sylvester Stallone onto the wrong side of the tracks and pitching him into one of those mismatched buddy-buddy thrillers that the unforgiving filmmaker became synonymous with during a cinematic period of intensely irresponsible and profoundly amoral machismo. Taking his cue from French graphic novel ""Du plomb dans la tete" by Alexis Nolent and Colin Wilson, he explores very familiar territory with a movie that is solid, hard-hitting and enjoyable if, ultimately, unremarkable.
Personally, I'm getting tired of the 80's throwback tagline that critics and fanboys love to slap upon any gutsy, bone-crunching modern thriller dealing with anti-heroes taking out the trash in that quintessentially above the law fashion. There's so many of these things getting made nowadays that they could just as easily be tagged as being a noughties convention. Just having a staple action star who helped pioneer this sort of thing to headline it does not mean that it is intentionally paying homage to a no-holds-barred era of macho excess from the decade of the bodycount flick. Look at any number of Jason Statham actioners, and, for that matter, reacquaint yourself with the likes of Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal – two crusty avengers who have been consistently churning out this sort of thing ever since the 80’s. So don’t go falling for this suffocating “veil of vintage” marketing that commentators and blurb-merchants seem to obsess over. The genre never really went away.
Yet with this in mind, though, Bullet to the Head does, in fact, feel quite nostalgic. Perhaps even more so than The Expendables, which only gains the epithet because of its muscle-bound line-up from yesteryear. The buddy-buddy genre was born a helluva long time ago – Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, anyone? - but it came to be defined in blood ‘n’ bullets with the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon and, most notably, Hill’s own 48 Hrs establishing the template for two guys on a mission, one a stickler for the rules and the other a dangerous maverick ,but both counting and depending on the other. In this case, however, the lines actually become slightly more blurred than usual. When two professional hitmen are hired to kill a crooked cop, the tables are turned upon them and they end up as targets, themselves, after the job is done.
One is sliced up, but the other, Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) survives. Reluctantly teaming up with the dead cop’s former partner, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) in an effort to track down the men who pulled the strings, the two find that they must work together not only to track down those responsible, but just to survive. As you would expect from such a hardboiled, noir-soaked scenario, their options are limited, and there are few people that they can trust. But with Bobo’s extremely street-savvy instincts and a constant stream of intel DC-fed to Kwon via a Blackberry that sometimes seems glued to the side of his head, they prove to be a formidable, if unconventional fighting force. Then when Jimmy’s gorgeous daughter, Lisa (Sarah Sahi), gets embroiled in the situation, things turn even nastier and, you guessed it, the affair gets personal.
Despite being riddled with cliché, from Stallone’s drawled Marlowe-esque narration to the fact that Taylor Kwon develops feelings for Lisa (shades of Kurt Russell’s Cash wanting to “bump uglies” with Stallone’s sister, a young Teri Hatcher, in Tango & Cash, here), Bullet is great, unpretentious entertainment, and a whole lot of violent fun indeed. The plot is just about silly enough to warrant to uber-brutality with which our boys go about their business, and the bad guys are sinister and sleazy enough to warrant being on the receiving end of such treatment. The battle-lines are drawn early on, with Jason Momoa’s sadistic assassin, Keegan, revealing his true colours and extreme prowess in close-quarter combat. From that point on, its tit-for-tat on the mean streets with dodgy cops, gangsters and mercs lurking around every corner.
Filmed on location in New Orleans, the scene of Hill’s underrated thriller, Johnny Handsome (with Mickey Rourke), the story is drenched in atmosphere. Anyone can shoot in that city and have one of those Mardi Gras or funky funeral processions wander by to help bestow some authenticity, but Hill has a brilliant matter-of-fact style that refuses to pander to the usual scene-setting tourist-spot doffing of the cap. We might see a ferryboat chugging along the Mississippi and even take an explosive trip out to Jimmy’s bayou hideaway, but there is no geographical showboating going on. No contrived lip-service being paid to the flood-ravaged quarters, and no such bogus highlighting of social or political grievances. Hill has never been patronising or sanctimonious. Whatever statement he is trying to make, it is usually buried beneath his hero’s cavalier and anti-social mood towards alimony and parking tickets. The good guys are scarcely any nicer than the bad ones.
His films are evocative and highly stylish, but they sure ain’t pretty. They deal with ugly men doing ugly things to even uglier men, and they take place in the all seedier parts of town. Hill focuses on the people, not the environment, even if he has such awesome battlegrounds as the Louisiana swamps in Southern Comfort and the plains of Arizona and Texas for Extreme Prejudice and Geronimo to play with. When everyone else was glamorising the Big Apple, he revelled in its squalid grimy underbelly in The Warriors, unafraid to expose the itchy scabs of Coney Island and off-limits, night-time Central Park. So, together with regular cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II (Supernova, Wild Bill, Last Man Standing, The Undisputed ), New Orleans loses its exotic sense of the mystique but gains a darker, more dangerous allure. This isn’t how Alan Parker views the province, and nor does it have the daft set-dressing and accent-melange of John Woo’s Hard Target. It could be anywhere, and yet the taint of Creole permeates the entire film.
The soundtrack from Zimmer-ite Steve Mazzaro (only his second full feature-film score) is as distinctly unremarkable as the plot, but its flava is resolutely steeped in laidback blues, spiced-up jazz and his speciality of drum sequencing so, at least, it sounds appropriately sweat-stippled and smoky. An early scene in a bar features the modern-day equivalent of that catchy Cajun stomp from the swamp that so deliriously provided the muzak for Southern Comfort’s classic final scene.
For Hill, the appeal of this sort of story has always been the dynamic between the cocktail of heroes. The Westerns of John Ford and the samurai odysseys of Kurosawa hold a peculiar fascination for him. But the gruff nature of Leone’s antiheroes cut closer to the bone that he is forever chewing on. Bullet is considerably less studious and probing than his previous examinations of the male psyche, despite it being unstoppably reverential towards the ideals they extolled. There is no mistaking that this is Hill-lite when compared to them, the characters merely going through the motions of bickering rivalry and posturing one-upmanship. Even in his lesser pictures, the emphasis besides the action has always been to strip back the moral constraints of the protagonists in order to expose their primal core. Peckinpah has always been his major influence and inspiration in this regard – seeking the raw violence within even the meekest of men, and rhapsodising its unveiling. This time out, no such grandiose revelations manifest themselves. He has cut back even his own modus operandi to leave a tale that is deliberately attenuated even by his own scalpel-carved standards. Whilst his earlier yarns were often regarded merely as thrillers and action-fests, they were also allegorical contests of chauvinism, misogyny and bigotry.
Bullet to the Head, as blatantly as its title suggests, presents us with examples of all three of these core-components, yet slicks them over with the veneer of brain-dead ballistics and pugilism. Here, there is no meaning behind the verbal snipes and the aggression. It simply is to be taken at face-value. Although many will say that he’s been doing it all along, I will suggest that Walter Hill has, only now, delivered a pure, dyed-in-the-wool action movie with nothing going on beneath the surface. And, for that, folks, I applaud him. Even idiotic eye-rollers like Taken 2 and A Good Day to Die Hard protest some hidden agenda going on within their frames, but Bullet makes absolutely no such condescension. Thus, turning full circle, it does become that throwback to a time when you could just sit back and watch people with bad attitudes going after each other without fear of being beaten over the head with some topical sermon from the mount as to why they might be doing it.
A sequence in a bath-house may remind you of something similar in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises – almost nude bad boys battling it out amidst the steam and the slippery tiles – but it is worth remembering that Hill actually got there first with the epic, smirk-inducing opening duel in the Russian sauna/gym from Red Heat. A masked ball later on adds a frisson of the weird and the uncanny – and that’s just seeing Stallone in a mask! – though Hill is not really concerned with such flamboyance. A bayou shootout is atmospheric but over before you know it, however. Despite such a trail of arrestingly brief vignettes, the film is nicely and concisely rendered. Some would say threadbare and vaguely insubstantial, but I believe it follows a controlled pattern of incidents, Hill continuing the hit-and-run tactics that have made his films so economical. The plot may be gossamer-thin but the drama is still effortlessly thrilling.
One problem I had with Arnie’s The Last Stand (which I still continue to enjoy, by the way) was that the bloody violence didn’t seem to sit well alongside the good-natured humour and relaxed banter from the ensemble cast. It just seemed as if it had been heaved-in from another film entirely. There are no such qualms with Bullet, which is fired down a road that is filled with lowlifes, killers and scumbags, overflowing with corruption, and is unapologetically ruthless from the get-go. The set-pieces are pretty swiftly doled-out, but there are enough of them to satisfy, and they all carry a fair bit of clout. Momoa’s towering Keegan is as efficient as a Terminator, and even if he keeps missing his main target he leaves quite a trail of destruction in his wake. And Sly pulls no punches either.
Although definitely a team-player as mercenary boss Barney Ross in The Expendables, and occasionally saddled with weaker sidekicks, Stallone normally goes it alone. Whether Rocky or Rambo, he tends to be the lone wolf hero who can really only trust one person - himself. He partners-up only with great chagrin – to wit Ray Tango in Tango & Cash and John Spartan in Demolition Man – or with the sort of past bitterness that can only be overcome alongside mutual adversity – Cliffhanger. His verbal sparring with Kwon is typical both of Hill’s love of acerbic, kerosene-blooded alpha-males, and of his own characteristically antagonistic, zero-tolerance putdowns. He clearly relishes the old dog attitude towards the young buck, but he is seasoned enough to make the inevitable softening-up of Bobo’s character as believable as it is formulaic.
Stallone is right back in his comfort zone. He put his foot wrong as a connected guy in the unwanted remake of Get Carter, and was hardly convincing as a haunted drunk in D-Tox, and though effective as the overweight, mutton-jeff sheriff in Copland, we all knew that he could, in fact, act, and the moral stance that he took there was, to be honest, just all in a day’s work for a man who has put on the shoes of practically every conceivable working hero you can imagine to fight the good fight. So, portraying a gangland hitman is no great stretch and nothing that will alter anybody’s perception of Sly’s larger-than-life heroism. However he makes a living as Jimmy Bobo, we know that he’s a stand-up guy with a code of ethics and a rich vein of honour. And, as such, he’s not too hard to root for. And if you look you’ll spot a few of those little self-deprecating asides that further warm him to you. Look at his constipated expression when it transpires that he won’t get served the post-hit drink that he craves.
A nice little montage of Jimmy’s police mug-shots from a life of crime give us a cool tour of Sly through the ages. One of them is clearly from First Blood, although the jacket has been changed, and one of them is definitely too pleasantly wisftul for it to have been taken after an arrest. His back and shoulders shrouded in gaudy tattoos and his hair shorn down to the “helmet” cut he sported in Danny Canon’s Judge Dredd, he is lean and mean. I love the way he brings his own bottle of “Double Bulleit” bourbon to a bar because he knows these joints never serve it – hence that earlier expression - and just rents a glass. Sure, it’s just a character trait thrown in to provide him with a tad more colour ... but it’s a cool touch, nonetheless. There is a conscious effort to make Jimmy come across as something slightly more extreme than Sly’s average brawler. His snazzy assassination suit and his throaty belch of Joe Pesci-like obscenity after a restroom set-to allude to his gangland connections, and his blood runs a little colder than the pre-Burma Rambo’s, but pretty soon such layers are peeled back to reveal a more familiar Sly, although one who is tinged with a slightly darker edge and surlier dispossession than we are used to seeing.
Much of the film’s criticism was levelled at the lack of chemistry between Stallone and Kang, but this really isn’t fair, and gives the set-up a raw deal that it doesn’t deserve. Kang (a Fast and Furious luminary), who is often singled-out as being the loose-wheel here, is actually more than decent in the role. Despite being saddled with a character that is pretty quick to throw-in with the very guy who killed his partner, Kwon is a strangely likeable, if unmistakably vacuous personality. He’s the foil to Stallone’s tough-nut maverick and Kang does end up dancing to Sly’s tune, but the screenplay doesn’t actually offer him much else to get his teeth into. He’s left dangling quite a lot of the time, and this suggests that he is meant to be considered as a thorn in Bobo’s side who just happens to be necessary to the job.
Hill’s characters, if you discount Richard Pryor’s aspirational money-fritterer in the comedy remake of Brewster’s Millions, are predominantly one-note ciphers of the angst-ridden male get-go. They are single-minded, argumentative, loudmouth drinkers with a string of failed relationships behind them and a professional chip on one shoulder that is only equalled in size by the emotional one perched over on the other. They are generic losers. Kwon fits the bill quite nicely as the straight man to Stallone’s rock-solid, prehistoric career-criminal. Hill fudges the tentative romance between him and Lisa, and this is something that perhaps should not have even been attempted in the first place – Hill was never any good at this sort of thing. But the interplay between him and Stallone is not the problem that some have claimed. If you come into this expecting the sort of whipcrack-away banter that you savoured between Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in both 48 Hrs and Another 48 Hrs, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Their exchanges here are quieter, slower and more sarcastic, but they are still amusingly point-scoring.
Momoa, the man who we’ve nearly all forgotten was once heir to the throne of Conan, is excellent value, albeit in a truncated role. Sketched-in as some sort of mercenary demigod, he really isn’t given enough screentime to become anything more memorable in the modern villain stakes. It’s not his fault, of course. Big and bowel-troublingly menacing, he lurches from shootout to grapple like some Bondian ogre from yesteryear, a thuggish bogeyman who is allowed a glimmer of personality only when his masters erroneously assume that he has nothing between his ears but rocks. It is a shame that we don’t get to see more of him than just scowling meat, but I am really beginning to believe that his turn as Khal Drogo in Season 1 of Game of Thrones was just a flash in the pan, and that all he will ever get to play from now on will be brutes and henchmen. He is better than just this ... so somebody should be confident enough to give him a shot at something more.
Christian Slater pops up as greedy bureaucratic lawyer Marcus Baptiste, a man with his grubby fingers in some poisonous pies ... and a little bit too much inside knowledge than is strictly safe. Almost as ageless as Stallone, he sparks off with some typical smartmouth yabbering spilling from that perpetual smirk – “There’s nothing you can do to me that I haven’t already done to myself, for fun!” - but his appearance does smack a little of stunt-casting. Or perhaps even a favour. And check out Jimmy’s doomed partner, Louis Blanchard. He is played by Jon Seda who, with his hair like this, looks just like rock ‘n’ roll physicist Dr. Brian Cox!
After two exhausting and damaging tours of duty with The Expendables, and a third one on the cards, we know that Stallone can still slug it out with the best of the best. Jimmy Bobo’s face might look like it should have a team of mountain-climbers and Sherpas clinging off the side of it, but it sits atop a body that is chiselled, hard and ripped to-hell-and-back. Stallone was always the more agile and athletic of the 80’s action superstars, and he is more than willing and able to prove it with some punishing bouts of inter-personal wreckage that see him going toe-to-toe with men half his age. His big smackdown with Momoa – the notorious and bloodcurdling axe fight – is a bludgeoning delight that will have you wincing and cringing as steel clangs against steel perilously close to vulnerable flesh.
It marks a new entry in a progression of Hillian confrontations that go way beyond simple fisticuffs, or gunplay. Baseball bats in The Warriors. Knives in The Long Riders and Southern Comfort. Sledgehammers in Streets of Fire. And, um, busses in Red Heat! The way that Momoa moves may be more streamlined and fluid, but he still reminds me of the ponytailed brute that Van Damme’s kickboxing French Foreign Legionnaire fights at the climax of AWOL (aka Lionheart), and this only makes him all the more intimidating. But Stallone, battling arthritis as much as he is a hulking Hawaiian, is the one who impresses the most. Keegan may do some obnoxious taunting (“Ooh, ouch! You okay?”) and whip that axe around with one hand like a cheerleader twirling a baton, but Jimmy slams in some savage body-blows like a Bane-possessed Balboa, and that lopsided roar of bestial defiance is always welcome.
Bullet to the Head is very akin to Hill’s Last Man Standing in that it looks nice and slick, with an ambience that makes you feel grubby, and has most of the elements that you expect, and love to have in one of his films. But, similarly, it lacks the ineffable cool and the sheer knuckleduster style that signified him at his prime. Which, to be honest, is hardly a shock given that the director is now very probably over the Hill and struggling to keep up with a leading man who definitely does not act his age. But, short and sweet, it is never bogged-down with flab, and even if the story does seem a tad over-complicated, what with a somewhat confusing thread of manipulative skulduggery, it provides plenty of incident and bravado to keep the visuals evocatively languid, and the pace punishingly episodic. There is a hint of Gibbo’s Payback about the modern-noir aspect and the drained palette, and even nods to Stallone’s potboiling misfires of The Specialist and Assassins. (Even his character’s name of Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo is a reference to his ill-advised comical escapade, Oscar.)
The film, therefore, is very much a paean to, and a summation of a lot of what has gone before, for both actor and director.
Out of this and The Last Stand, both of which were released at the same time in a delayed head-to-head that went completely under the radar and audiences avoided in their droves, I prefer Bullet to the Head. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is, doesn’t strive to cram-in too many unnecessary or comedic elements, and delivers precisely what you expect. Personally, I would have liked another action scene slotted in somewhere along the way, but this is just me being greedy. As usual. Stallone is typically excellent, and he dominates. There is simply no let-up in his gruff style and his raw, impressive physicality. We have new blood Momoa going up against him, but you won’t really come away from this remembering his action-chops, as good as they are. This is a Stallone film, through and through. And I love that. The guy is showing no signs of slowing down and, on this sort of form, he could be bringing his brand of rough ‘n’ tumble for another decade or so.
Unfairly dismissed at the flicks, and simply dropped unceremoniously onto home video, Walter Hill’s merciless blast through the Big Easy hardly breaks new ground … but it is still gets there with a bullet.
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