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Bullet to the Head

2013 has had a hell of a good start for action films, with the likes of Gangster Squad and The Last Stand giving the year a pair of its first unbridled guilty pleasures, a string that looks to culminate in A Good Day to Die Hard. In the middle of this, is Bullet to the Head, which despite years of delay and production issues, has finally made it to the theaters, having opened at a film festival last November.
Bullet to the Head Movie PosterAs mentioned previously, this movie has been on my radar for a while, given both being Sylvester Stallone’s first star vehicle since 2003’s Driven, to being director Walter Hill’s major passion project in years, and between the two, it certainly has the potential to live up to the action-packed title. Based on a famously dark and violent French comic book, and sporting a well-rounded and well-traveled cast, the film has an enormous amount of potential, and the trailers had me hyped for the movie. That said, the movie had a famously troubled production, and it’s release was delayed a year, moving from last April to today, where it opens against the heavily hyped Warm Bodies, which seeks to do to zombies what Twilight did for vampires – the walking dead may need a bullet to the head themselves if that fate befalls them. In any event, I was psyched for the film – there are worse ways to spend a Friday night then watching Sly Stallone kill people.

So do Hill and Stallone deliver a fully-loaded action-thriller, or is this a film deserving of execution? Grab your gun, and put a around in the chamber as I take aim at Bullet to the Head.

The movie opens to Jimmy Bobo, an unrepentant hit man with a body count as big as his rap sheet, filling us in on his latest, and possibly last assignment. In particular, this hit saw his partner snuffed, and himself forced to work with DC police inspector Taylor Kwon, whose own partner got whacked by the same New Orleans criminal cartel that killed Jimmy’s partner. The two obviously don’t like each other, and clash with each other as much as they do the mob, but when faced with both cruelty and conspiracy, are forced to work together to go deeper into the ring of crime and corruption that left their partners dead, and will claim them before it’s over if the ringleaders have anything to say about it.

In terms of plot, style and tone, interestingly enough, the movie comes across as a mixture of an early John Woo/Luc Besson crime-thriller, with a heavy dose of 70s action film tossed in for good measure. Of course, the movie it shares the most in common with is one of Walter Hill’s earlier movies, the tragically overlooked 48 Hours, with Bullet to the Head sort of reversing the buddy cop dynamic of that film, with Stallone playing a veteran criminal to Kang’s green cop, which might have worked in other circumstances, but due to a few factors, among which include the script and Kang’s rather flaccid performance, the dynamic is very one-sided, hindering the movie somewhat. Much the same, the overall plot concerning both hunting down the guilty parties and the Chinatown-esque conspiracy could have used further development, which sadly, proves to be something of a pattern with the movie, having got the feeling much of the movie was left on the editing room floor (A number of scenes and lines from the trailer don’t even make it into the final cut). The result, as you can imagine, is disappointing.

The acting and characters are something of a mixed bag, and has a well-traveled cast, no doubt hoping to take advantage of the overseas box office by sporting a cast member from every continent. Leading the pack is Sylvester Stallone, who, playing against type, plays criminal and hardened hitman Jimmy Bobo, and does so with gusto and skill, reminding us Sly can do more than play good guys. Unfortunately, this is somewhat muted given his law-abiding foil, Sung Kang, as DC Cop Taylor Kwan has all the charisma and screen presence of a mid-priced table lamp, and delivers his dialog with a droll execution that makes him a wet rag in some of the films more explosive moments. This is made up for somewhat with the villains, whom really could have used some more screen time, especially Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Jason Momoa, the latter of whom may have finally proven he has the chops for roles more complex than Khal Drogo, making up for his terrifyingly bad turn as Conan the Barbarian. Still, like the story of the movie, the cast could have used some further development, and I get hints that there is some good amount of story that didn’t make it into the final cut.

If there is one thing the film has going for it, it’s the direction and cinematography, with Walter Hill proving he’s not lost a beat since helming The Warriors, especially with the movies action scenes, of which I wish there were more of – one of the movies best moments is the final confrontation between Stallone and Momoa, where the two try to disembowel with each other with a pair of firemen’s hatchets. As mentioned before, the stylistic call back to the gritty action films of the 70s or the action cinema of Europe or Hong Kong is a rare treat, and the New Orleans setting makes for a fine film backdrop. Aside from that, there’s not much special to be seen here.

Overall, that seems to be the movie’s biggest problem – despite having an enormous amount of talent and potential behind it, the film itself is nothing special, not bad, but certainly not good. What’s especially frustrating about that is there is the signs of a good movie, even a great movie, that occasionally shines through – Stallone does shockingly well as the anti-villain lead, the villains are great, the action scenes well executed, and the John Woo/Luc Besson hodge podge results in something that could have been dark buddy-cop Chinatown. However, a couple of factors cripple the film, ranging from Sung Kang providing a positively flaccid foil to Stallone, tossing off the entire duo-dynamic that provides the center of the film, to the fact at a brisk 90 minutes, it feels like about half the movie is missing, which given the rumors of production woes and mass editing, is a distinct possibility.

I imagine the movie might prove quite popular overseas, between the style and casting well suited for the European or Asian action scene, but at least in my case, Bullet to the Head was a misfire. The movie feels about half-done, underwritten, underdeveloped and overall was disappointing – it might be worth checking out on DVD if there is an unedited cut, and I might give the movie a second chance then if that is the case. For now, save your money for Die Hard or go see The Last Stand if you need your action fix – Stallone, Momoa, Hill and Co. are just gonna have to bite the bullet here.

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