Monday, February 11, 2013



- Bullet to the Head probably could not have been released at a worse time. It's a violent, dark action film that's a throwback to the 80's when these sorts of grimy, un-PC splatterfests were the norm at the cinema, often starring Sylvester Stallone, and often directed by guys like Walter Hill, who returns from a lengthy hiatus to helm this one. In the wake of serious questions about violence in the entertainment industry, it's no wonder that an old-school shoot-'em-up titled Bullet to the Head bombed at the box-office. To that end, there's a whole generation that frowns upon the old-school, testosterone-driven style of filmmaking that is the bread and butter of guys like Stallone. Coming hot off the heels of Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand biting the box-office dust, it is no surprise that the darker, grittier Bullet to the Head also tanked badly. Still, if you're an old-school action fan, I think the film is worth a look. It's not a genius movie by any means, but I found it a refreshing throwback that oozed Walter Hill's trademark neo-noir atmosphere. This is the kind of R-rated forbidden fruit that kids of the 80's will be able to appreciate - the kind of no-holds-barred badassery that you rarely see anymore.

Again, that's not to say that Bullet to the Head is a fantastic film. It suffers from a very uneven script that lacks the kind of wit and cleverness that could have made this one truly memorable. Hill does his best to polish things up with some decent one-liners, some hard-hitting narration from Stallone's world-weary hitman character, and some atmospheric direction that recalls classic 80's action. But it's not quite enough to ensure that the film 100% clicks. A lot of it is the script, which falls flat in places (for every decent zinger, there are probably two clunkers), and never really finds its through-line. Essentially, this is the story of a hard-boiled hitman (Stallone), forced to team with a dogged but fresh-faced cop (Sung Kang), to take down a cabal of corrupt businessmen. The recurring theme is that both Stallone and Kang have their own moral codes that come into conflict, but they've got to find a middle ground in order to work together. To that end, there's an urban Western-ish vibe to the film ... something that is definitely familiar ground to Hill, best known for films like The Warriors and The Driver. But nothing really clever or novel is done with the premise - with the rift between the two characters - except to emphasize that it exists. Kang also doesn't have any particularly great chemistry with Stallone, and you do wonder if the overall movie might have been elevated with a stronger presence in that role. It's not 100% his fault though ... some of the weakest moments of the film are those in which Kang is supposed to look like this new-school techie just because he (wait for it) uses his smart phone to look up information (made more amusing by the fact that his smart phone is a clunky-looking Blackberry). They could have found more novel ways to play up the differences between Kang and Stallone ... that's for sure.

To that end, an overarching issue is that too many of the film's characters are just utterly generic. Sure, on one level it's fun to see Jason Mamoa (Game of Thrones, Conan) playing a sadistic heavy, or Christian Slater as a drugged-out corporate sleazebag, or Sarah Shahi (Fairly Legal) as Stallone's tattoo-artist daughter ... but you also wish there was at least a little more meat to these characters - something to make them pop. The converse of that, of course, is that the movie is quite well cast, and like I said, it's fun just seeing underutilized actors like Mamoa and Slater and the sultry Shahi in the film. There's even a decent cameo from Holt McCallany, the star of the much-missed cable drama Lights Out.

As for Stallone, he's in fine form here. Sure, he looks a little strange - his face now an odd mesh of grizzled middle age and plastic-y smoothness ... but hey, there are few action icons more charismatic or great at playing the badass than Sly. And it's great to see him in such a dark, hard-boiled role - something we haven't seen him do in quite a while. Stallone puts a lot into this one - and mixes up the character's stoicism with moments of rage, sadness, and sardonic humor.

And then there's Hill. I love the starkness, the coldness, the steely, urban jungle sort of vibe that Hill brings to the film. There's a great economy of storytelling that many other directors could learn from. And ... when the action does ramp up, it's brutal and hard-hitting. That axe-fight teased in the trailers, between Sly and Mamoa? It's even more kickass in the film than I hoped.

I'll also give a special shout-out to the film's score -a great blues/rock medley that screams "old-school action," reminding me of classics like They Live and Hill's own The Warriors. Again, the movie never lacks for atmosphere - it looks, feels, and bleeds badassery on a visual and sonic level.

For me, BULLET TO THE HEAD was an enjoyable film, and a nice reminder of the days when R-rated action flicks from guys like Hill, Carpenter, and others delivered low-budget - but uniquely memorable - thrills. This is not one for the weak of heart. This is old-school. And yeah, the movie has its share of issues ... but sometimes - especially in this world of ultra-slick, decidedly nonthreatening blockbusters - something a little unpolished, a little clunky, a little ugly, a little rough around the edges, a little unsettling ... is just what the doctor ordered.

My Grade: B

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