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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Bullet to the Head

 

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.

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Wilmington

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MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

INTERVIEWER
Do you outline plays before you start to write them?

PINTER
Not at all. I don’t know what kind of characters my plays will have until they…well, until they are. Until they indicate to me what they are. I don’t conceptualize in any way. Once I’ve got the clues I follow them—that’s my job, really, to follow the clues.

INTERVIEWER
What do you mean by clues? Can you remember how one of your plays developed in your mind—or was it a line-by-line progression?

PINTER
Of course I can’t remember exactly how a given play developed in my mind. I think what happens is that I write in a very high state of excitement and frustration. I follow what I see on the paper in front of me—one sentence after another. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a dim, possible overall idea—the image that starts off doesn’t just engender what happens immediately, it engenders the possibility of an overall happening, which carries me through. I’ve got an idea of what might happen—sometimes I’m absolutely right, but on many occasions I’ve been proved wrong by what does actually happen. Sometimes I’m going along and I find myself writing “C. comes in” when I didn’t know that he was going to come in; he had to come in at that point, that’s all.
~ Harold Pinter

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