There’s something to be said for the evergreen quality of action flicks from the 80s. The mindless action, unnecessary explosions, rehashed stereotypes and endless cliches have all become staples of nostalgic trips down Roundhouse Lane. Quite a few films have recently worked at paying homage to this classic genre, with Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables series at the forefront of the movement. Next up to bat is Bullet to the Head, a buddy cop revenge pic that gives Stallone the opportunity to bash some more skulls while the bashing is good.
Despite all of the effort put into making a gritty, no-holds-barred action thriller, Bullet to the Head just doesn’t do enough to break away from the genre it wishes to pay its respects to. To be fair, the movie does make a few moves in the right direction, but it’s what the film doesn’t do that holds it back from being great.
Sly plays hitman Jimmy, whose partner Louis (Jon Seda) gets killed in a set up after a successful hit. The victim of said hit happens to be Detective Taylor Kwon’s (Sung Kang) former partner, causing Kwon to seek a meeting with Jimmy in hopes of getting information on who ordered the hit. One thing leads to another, and soon the two are partnered up in their respective searches for revenge.
The plot is barely worth mentioning, involving the usual corrupt millionaires with their sway over judges and politicians, who, according to action movie tropes, are easier to control than a toy car. Jimmy’s daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi) shows up as a pawn used for bait, but whose daughter doesn’t these days? Parents should be more worried about keeping their little girls from getting kidnapped by ethnic baddies rather than keeping them off the pole.
A lot of what works perfectly in Bullet to the Head can be attributed to the direction of Walter Hill, whose work on two of my personal favorites (The Warriors and Aliens) can be glimpsed briefly here. His choice to keep fights short, visceral, disorienting and sans music makes the action crackle realistically. Every hit actually looks painful, gunshots aren’t treated lightly, and certain characters fight as they would in a real situation. If someone’s afraid, they fire whole clips into a body, despite the first bullet doing its job. A punch to the nose brings with it a torrent of blood rather than the usual smear.
It’s a shame then that the action is only briefly glimpsed throughout the whole affair. Despite the blunt name Bullet to the Head, which the film takes very literally (I counted nine bullets delivered to various heads, and one line that inexplicably used the phrase), most of the film is spent trying to explain a story that’s too bare to waste time on.
Stallone’s acting chops haven’t quite evolved or regressed, because come on, he’s Sly! If you’ve seen a Stallone flick, then you know what you’re in for. Major props to him for still fighting with the best at 66, as he’s still a force to be reckoned with, a hulking beast who exudes power and primitive violence no matter the situation. The same might not be said for Kang, but he holds his own opposite of Sly, providing most of the humor at the expense of his race. Some of the jokes between the odd couple are funny, but by the end it sounds like Stallone’s jabs were written by Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy that Bullet to the Head chose not to avoid is the underutilization of the New Orleans setting. It’s sad that such a colorful locale wasn’t used to full effect, especially since a setting such as that could have added some zest to an otherwise underwhelming exercise. Another misstep was the absolutely boring villains, none of whom presented any special reason to be detested. Sure, they killed a few people, but those people happened to be a hitman and a bar full of gangsters who weren’t saints themselves. Christian Slater was the only villain I found to be abhorrent, and that’s just because he was Christian Slater.
Just like every other action movie that you’ve heard of, this is one that derives its rewards based solely on the audience’s expectations. If a movie that starts with a bullet fired at the screen during the opening credits is your cup of tea (or whiskey), then go enjoy. If that idea just made you snort with laughter, you should probably sit this one out. The film is just another example of squandered potential that needed a few tweaks to get that breath of life that could have elevated it above “meh” status. As it is, Bullet to the Head took a bullet to the knee before it could stand up to the classics it evokes.
Bullet to the Head is sufficient for some beautifully shot bits of crackling violence, but devoid of the unique thrills it could have delivered.