Bullet to the Head left me surprised at its aggressive mediocrity. I should have known better. It’s not like Sylvester Stallone has one of the best track records in the history the Hollywood. And yet, I can’t conceal my disappointment with this flick. And the reason for the disappointment is this: Bullet to the Head united Sylvester Stallone with director Walter Hill. If Walter Hill’s name doesn’t ring any bells with you, know this: he’s one of the filmmakers who, along with the James Cameron and John McTiernan, helped shape the modern action movie. Responsible for producing the Alien franchise and for directing The Warriors, 48 Hrs, and Last Man Standing, Walter Hill is one of the largely unsung heroes of the action genre. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know that from watching Bullet to the Head.
The plot is standard Stallone fare. An aging hitman named Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) sets out on a path of bloody revenge after his partner his killed by a psychotic ex-mercenary (Jason Momoa). Tagging along for the ride is Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a largely by-the-book Washington D.C. police detective who recently lost his partner. Both murders are connected, and both the Neanderthal Jimmy and the uptight Kwon need each other to solve the case.
The movie fails to work due to the teaming up of Stallone with Sung Kang. Bullet to the Head is meant to be a standard Hollywood buddy cop movie in the spirit of Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs, and Midnight Run. However, a good buddy cop movie requires two opposite yet equal opposing forces. The actors on both sides of the equation need to possess roughly equal shares of charisma. Here, Korean-American actor Sung Kang just isn’t up to wresting attention away from Stallone. The buddy dynamic doesn’t work here because the casting doesn’t work, and because that dynamic doesn’t work, the entire movie is off kilter.
However, the uneven dynamic isn’t entirely Kang’s fault. The character he’s playing just sucks. Both Kwon and Jimmy are going after the people responsible for killing their partners. Their paths cross when the hitman saves Kwon from certain death at the hands of a couple of corrupt New Orleans police officers. The idea behind the partnership is that Kwon is a younger, tech-savvy problem solver while Jimmy is just an aging dinosaur who’s really good at kicking people’s faces in.
However, the younger good cop doesn’t bring anything to the table. He mostly screws around on his Blackberry while lecturing Jimmy about killing people. And Kwon must be one of the most ineffectual, hypocritical cops in the history of the action genre. He partners up with a known murderer, and then gives him free reign to do whatever he wants. Jimmy straight up murders at least two guys in Kwon’s presence and Kwon doesn’t do anything but lecture the guy about the law. Now, mind you, he never throws a punch at Jimmy, and he never really tries to arrest the guy. Kwon just keeps nagging the multiple felon, telling him he’s going to arrest him later.
Stallone just rolls his eyes along with the audience, because we all know the by-the-book cop isn’t going to take his new partner down. Further, we never get the sense that Kwon is a match for Jimmy. Kwon only excels at doing two things: getting beaten up and giving sanctimonious lectures. When Stallone leaves the screen, the movie grinds to a halt.
So with the foundation of the movie being so fundamentally shaky, how is the rest of the production, you ask? Well, it sucks, too. Walter Hill still exhibits as much talent for capturing action and violence as he ever did, but the plot is utterly stale. The villains’ master plan involves bribing and extorting high level politicians in order to tear down low-income housing and build luxurious condominiums in downtown New Orleans.
Really? That’s the reason Sylvester Stallone and Jason Momoa are running around, murdering half the city? Because the bad guys are bribing judges and Congressmen into gentrifying the city? Since when did Congress ever need to be bribed to kick poor, black people out on the street? It’s practically in their job description. So it’s utterly bizarre that the tangled web of intrigue in Bullet to the Head leads back to something that pretty much happens out in open in the real world on a daily basis.
As for the action—it works. Walter Hill really hasn’t missed a step when it comes to capturing violence, and a one-on-one axe fight between Stallone and Momoa serves as a highlight of the movie. Further, Stallone massacres at least two dozen guys with guns, knives, and bombs while dropping cheesy one-liners right and left. The action works, it’s just unfortunately employed in the service of a poorly conceived project. However, I suppose that could be said of most of Stallone’s movies.
The good news is that Bullet to the Head feels like a typical Stallone movie, the bad news is that Bullet to the Head feels like a typical Stallone movie.