BULLET TO THE HEAD (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S. : Walter Hill, 2013
Sly Stallone is 66, and he has neck and ribcage injuries sustained while working, slugging it out with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren on 2010’s The Expendables — and he probably shouldn’t be swinging an axe in a movie axe-fight with another axe-wielding actor (Jason “Conan” Momoa) about half his age, in the new Walter Hill-directed movie Bullet to the Head. But Stallone veered his career away from Oscar-winning sentiment (the first Rocky) to pec-flexing action (the later Rockys and Rambos) decades ago, and he knows, by now, that what he’s doing in movies like this is a little silly. So he also knows how to stand outside the action and make fun of it.
He can use the half-absurd scenes from Matz and Colin Wilson’s graphic novel “Du Plomb dans la Tete,“ about so-called New Orleans crime –with Stallone as sardonic hit man James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonomo, and Fast and Furious co-star Sung Kang as full-of-himself Korean cop Taylor Kwan — as a springboard for a string of zingers and wisecracks. It’s a mild surprise, though it shouldn‘t be, that Stallone is funny in this movie, which he doesn’t take too seriously. His relaxed self-kidding way with his lines may be the result of coming off some slightly absurd projects: such as surrounding himself with that neck-breaking all-star old-guys crew in the Expendables movies.
Walter Hill and Stallone never made a movie together in the 1980s — and maybe they were right to wait. Bullet to the Head is one of the most entertaining things either of them has done in years. Hill is 71 himself, and he gets into the old guys vs. younger guys mood right away, staging a hit undertaken by Jimmy and his ex-cop partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda).of a particularly obnoxious business guy (who has a hooker in his hotel shower). Jimmy and Louis are two been-there guys who whack that sadistic business dude in the middle of his liaison with the whore, a witness whom Jimmy imprudently leaves alive. Pretty soon the hard-boiled killer Keegan (Momoa) has shown up in a hot bar to whack Louie, and to start the bloody ball rolling.
No point in describing any more, because you’ve seen it all before — and what makes a movie like this work is not originality (unless you think axe-fights are a wildly imaginative innovation), but energy and personality and the right kind of smart-assery. Stallone, using his huge bass voice and his big dark, somewhat McCartneyeque eyes, supplies all the personality the movie needs. (Kang though, doesn’t.)
The movie also boasts some evil suits (Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuote-Agbaje), a lady tattoo artist (Jimmy’s daughter Lisa, played by Sarah Shahi), exploding hideouts and a massacre or two.And guns, of course. And gun killings. It’s the kind of disreputable show that some audiences like precisely because it’s disreputable, and because it’s amusing sometimes to see a little swagger in your movie heroes or anti-heroes.
I’ve always preferred ‘70s action and crime movies (in the heyday of Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and Charley Bronson), to the ‘80s ones (the heyday of Eastwood, Stallone and Schwarzenegger), because, by comparison, the ‘80s actioners (except some of Clint’s and the first Terminator ) were so fantasized and empty of real personality, compared to the best ‘70s stuff — which would include Hill’s 1975 Hard Times, with Bronson and James Coburn.
Stallone and Hill both came in at the end of the ‘70s, they both hit their commercial peaks in the ‘80s. But I don’t think a lot of their latter movies in that decade did them much good, however rich those shows might have made them. In Bullet to the Head (which shouldn’t be confused with John Woo’s Hong Kong 1990 bone-crusher, or with the German movie Knife in the Head by Reinhard Hauff, or with Bullet in the Schnozzola, which I just made up), they’re both back to fantasizing.
But at least screenwriter Alessandro Camon (who wrote the excellent military drama The Messenger, in collaboration with writer-director Oren Moverman), gave Stallone some good lines. That’s often all some modern action movies need, and don’t have. Stallone is 66, and he could use a few more scripts with funny dialogue, and less opportunities for guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin to give him a hairline fracture or critics to give him a compressed rib. After all, it’s Sly’s neck.