Its title notwithstanding, Walter Hill’s latest shoot-em-up features lots of bullets to lots of heads. More often than not, it’s James Bobomo (Sylvester Stallone) who’s delivering these signature injuries, not so much because he’s casually brutal—though he is that—but more because he’s a professional killer and knows this is the most efficient means to certain ends.
Bobo first appears in Bullet to the Head on the job in New Orleans, with his partner Louis (Jon Seda). Their target deserves it, as much as anyone can in a movie like this (a Walter Hill move, a movie based on a French graphic novel, a movie with Stallone as a gun for hire): he’s an ex-cop from DC (Holt McCallany) gone very, very wrong, snorting coke, drinking, preparing himself for a night with his Russian hooker (Weronika Rosati). All this debauchery is conveyed in a few quick, blurry-freezy-framey shots, to underline the ex-cop’s staggering and self-deluding and lurching failure to push back against the boys who bust in his door and shoot him dead.
And so here you are, maybe 11 or 12 minutes into the movie, and already you’ve seen enough blood and broken bones and bullets to heads (not to mention a faked bullet to the head) to suffice for many standard action films, and you’ve barely scratched the set up for Bobo’s dilemma, which will end up involving the bad cop’s super-straight ex-partner, Taylor (Sung Kang), and also Bobo’s tight-jeansed tattoo-artist-daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi), an ex Special Forces goon, Keegan (Jason Momoa), who likes killing for the wrong reasons (that is, not because of the money), and oh dear, the ever exceptional Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the Biggest Baddest Guy, Morei. Walking with two canes, angry and black, Morei is Bullet to the Head‘s most emphatic villain, loud about his wealth and sense of entitlement, the sort of villain who arranges to kill his killers once their jobs are done, because, well, they can’t be trusted if they’re killers.
Morei’s cruel logic is of a piece with Bobo’s. The difference is that Bobo does his own killing, and if he’s not precisely honorable about it, he’s essentially self-aware and awfully knowledgeable, very working class. Call him the Rocky of professional assassins. Morei’s ability to buy cops, politicians, and local entrepreneurs (say, the slickster real estate maven played by Christian Slater) means that his moral stake is suspect. But Bobo, no less experienced in mayhem and destruction, knows exactly what’s wrong or right. Just so, he instructs his accidental partner Taylor, “Sometimes you have to abandon your principles and do the right thing.”
Taylor repeatedly reminds Bobo that his crimes will have legal costs. “You can’t just kill someone like that,” he sputters following one of Bobo’s many summary executions, though of course, as Bobo points out, he just did. The wordplay is clever in its action-movie way, but the broader point has to do with Bobo’s ethos. If Morei believes he and other mighty crooks take and do what they do because they can, Bobo maintains a distinction between what he can do, literally, and what he must do, ethically. Thus, even though he admits he’s not been a good father and he makes unfair demands on Lisa, bringing her the occasional bullet-wound victim in need of fixing (she’s had a year of medical school), Bobo maintains a vague code of conduct, quite beyond the laws Taylor keeps citing.
Bobo’s code has limits of a sort: he’s fond of racist jokes and also, jokes about Taylor’s reliance on his GPS and BlackBerry. He’s got a Chloe-style tech back in DC who reports addresses and criminal backgrounds in mere seconds: that you never see her underscores both the tech advances and loss of embodied reality she represents. Both these sets of jokes—about race and tech—underscore the most important lesson that Taylor inevitably learns while riding along with Bobo, namely, that bodies matter.
The bodies in Bullet to the Head are, of course, attached to heads prone to damage by bullets, which makes them at once fragile objects and also potentially spectacular objects, always on the verge of horrific monstrosity or wretched victimization. It’s true this is the case for all bodies in action movies (particularly those about cops and killers), but still, this one also ponders the fate of a very particular body, Stallone’s. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand, he makes and is subject to wisecracks concerning his aging body and the occasional admiring reference to his expertise. But Bobo is weary, not idealistic, sure that things will turn out badly (his planning for the worst also generates some commentary). He’s not a hero (certainly not a lawman, like Arnold’s sheriff), so much as he’s the abject incarnation and logical end of action movies writ large, the truth and the consequence.