You can guess from the title of Bullet to the Head that the film will be (a) bloody and (b) brainless, and from the name above that title — Sylvester Stallone — that it will be (c) aimed at Neanderthals and (d) hard to watch on account of its star’s (e) vast swamp of narcissism and (f) egregious plastic surgery. I could keep this up all the way to letter z, but on its own degenerate terms, the movie works. Instead of subjecting us to his usual artless thuggery, Stallone has enticed the auteur action darling Walter Hill (my favorite of his films: The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, Hard Times) out of retirement and, based on the evidence, didn’t meddle too much with the camera placement and editing. The upshot is a shoot-‘em-up with a lean palette and relatively streamlined carnage, wet but not sloppy. It can almost pass for “classical.”
Based on a graphic novel (Du Plomb Dans La Tete, oui oui) by Matz and Colin Wilson, Bullet to the Head is a mismatched buddy picture in the vein of Hill’s 48 HRS, except that Stallone is both the man of action and the guy with the funniest lines. He plays a poker-faced (in action parlance, existential) New Orleans hit man called Jimmy Bobo who rationalizes his executions on the grounds that the people he’s killing are bigger scumbags than the ones who hired him — although how he knows this he doesn’t say. He does say in voice-over that he draws the line — “no women, no children.” But that bit must have been added later because his decision not to shoot a naked, crying hooker in the suite of his latest target is taken as a sign that he’s going soft.
After a mountainous assassin (Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones) takes a fish-gutting knife to his partner, Bobo finds himself hunting for the culprit and his employers alongside Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), who’s in Crescent City for reasons that escape me but I’m sure were very, very important. The thing to remember is that Kwon is “by-the-book” and Bobo doesn’t have a book and that they argue about the rightness/wrongness of blowing people away as they drive around between bloodbaths. Buttressing Bobo’s case is that most of the guys whose heads he puts bullets in are on the verge of shooting Kwan, the ingrate.
Bullet to the Head seems to me closer in spirit to Lee Child’s influential Jack Reacher series than the negligible movie starring Wee Tommy Cruise. Reacher is an ex-military cop but to the best of my recollection has never deposited a bad guy on the steps of the local precinct. His license to kill is self-awarded, and those kills tend to be slow, graphic, and satisfying — vigilante porn. Bobo is cut from the same “What me worry?” shroud. Kwon says, “You don’t just kill a guy like that,” and Bobo says. “I just did.” No muss, no fuss. Well, some muss. But none of it gets on Sly’s tight T-shirts.
The old guy is still quite a camera object. The word that comes to mind is hard. His pecs are hard. His abs are hard. His biceps are hard, and the veins popping out of them are hard. His face has no give whatsoever. Only his diction is soft. But Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alessandro Camon (The Messenger) largely sticks to one-syllable words, and Hill knows how to frame his heroes as well as any director alive — he is the man who, in Hard Times, bested even Sergio Leone at making Charles Bronson seem like the mythical confluence of Western brawn and Eastern forbearance. The trick to using Stallone (which Stallone himself learned only recently) is keeping the camera sufficiently far back to make you sympathize instead of recoil from the freakishly pumped-up little man — still the best example of what a boy will do to himself when his Daddy thinks he’s puny. In any case, Stallone holds himself well in a good bathhouse beat-down scene and in his ultimate face-off with Momoa. It’s a shame that, owning to some poor plotting, Bobo never has a final scene with Mr. Big, a crippled but dangerous international cutthroat played by the great Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of Oz and Lost (where his Mr. Eko needed a better send-off, too).
Bullet to the Head isn’t a distinguished addition to Hill’s oeuvre, but Stallone’s refusal to say die offers yet more proof of how hard it is to keep a rich white Republican gun nut down. Folks, they’re still calling the shots.