‘Bullet to the Head’ Isn’t Old School, It’s Just Old

Sylvester Stallone is nearly as resilient and well-schooled in the art of the comeback as his fellow Italian-American icon of late-’70s cinema, John Travolta. He’s never quite had a Pulp Fiction moment, but Stallone’s retro The Expendables series has been the resuscitation device that keeps on giving, pumping oxygen into not just Stallone’s career, but also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s, and Dolph Lundgren’s, among others.

Yet evidence has begun to mount that the action stars of the ’80s may be a package deal at the all-you-can-explode buffet: this past winter, no fewer than three of the Expendables released solo starring vehicles. Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand, non-’80s affiliate Jason Statham’s Parker all bombed out, but it’s fearless leader Stallone who holds the title of lowest gross with Bullet to the Head.

Technically speaking, Bullet to the Head may not be a substantially worse movie than either The Expendables — but it is, crucially, far less fun. Stallone plays James Bonomo, a grim hitman whom we first see on the job with his partner, Louis (Jon Seda). They dispatch a man in a hotel room, but Bonomo leaves a naked girl in the victim’s shower alive, which is the highest form of chivalry in the world of this movie (which is to say, a movie where almost all of the women with lines, and several without, appear at least semi-naked).

This seems like it’s going to be a major plot point — a hitman’s moment of decency coming back to haunt him — but Bonomo’s decision doesn’t turn out to have much to do with what follows. The guys who hired the hitmen buddy double-cross them and kill Louis; Bonomo escapes and crosses paths with Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), an out-of-town cop investigating the trail of corruption and dead bodies (the trail snakes through Louisiana, a state whose local color has become a cheap go-to for crummy thrillers and action movies: throw in a costume party and a few crowded street scenes amidst the generic shoot-out warehouses and backstreets, and you’ve got yourself a Louisiana-style action picture!). The two men become reluctant partners in the fields of violence and inarticulate bickering.

Bullet to the Head obviously aspires to a certain efficient pulp amorality, which I guess is why the movie’s basic arc follows Kwon coming around to Bonomo’s preferred, murder-centric version of justice’s, as opposed to Kwon’s ineffective namby-pamby policework. But because an unchanging Bonomo is basically a violent loner, not much drives the movie; the advertising campaign and, secondarily, a few scenes in the screenplay claim that Stallone’s character is driven by revenge, but he doesn’t seem all that interested in bringing Louis’s killers to justice. He doesn’t even seem jazzed by the money owed to him for his hit job. He just turns up to belittle and sometimes save Kwon; by the end of the movie, it seems entirely possible that Bonomo’s motivations stem primarily from the opportunity to make racist remarks.

The thing is, even grading on a jokily-racist old-timer hitman curve, Bonomo’s remarks aren’t very funny. As it turns out, for a guy who relishes it, Sylvester Stallone sure is terrible at tough talk. As in The Expendables, there’s a peculiar English-as-a-second-language parlance to the volleys of insults, swear words, and rueful wisecracks that are supposed to work as banter. This is one, though not the only, reason that between the action sequences, Bullet to the Head contains almost no tension or frisson of any kind.

Poor Sung Kang, charming in several Fast and Furious movies, is stranded, here; Stallone has more tough-guy chemistry with Jason Momoa, playing the Keegan, type of henchman who emerges, glowering, from water post-explosion. One of the movie’s few innovations constitutes something of a spoiler, so consider yourself alerted: Because Keegan is obviously the most physically threatening member of Bullet to the Head‘s low-rent bad-guy ensemble, he gets promoted from mini-boss to main enemy for the climax, which features an axe fight between Stallone and Momoa. Briefly, during this scene, it becomes the pulpy action movie it wants to be; even the stupid quips get a little funnier. The sequence is snappy, exciting, and lasts all of about four minutes.

You might hope for more than four minutes from Walter Hill, one of those ’80s directors whom discerning action fans would love to see make a The Expendables-style comeback. On the Blu-ray’s sole special feature, an overview of the movie’s action and philosophy, Hill professes to enjoy movies where “the jokes are funny but the bullets are real,” perhaps under the misapprehension that he has made an action-comedy. The jokes here are a lost cause, as they tend to be with Stallone; the bullets, and the rest of the movie’s action bits, are more competent, but rarely inspired. In between shoot-outs, some of Hill’s stylistic tricks look cheap or out of place, like the weird out-of-focus detritus that clutter up some of his compositions.

Hill has the rep of a meat and potatoes action director who is bypassed by less talented upstarts. Stallone’s revived persona depends on the idea that his brand of brutality is similarly “old-school” and effective, as Bullet to the Head tries to make clear in a weak thread about Kwon always looking to his phone for information (there’s that stupid police work, again). But Bullet to the Head doesn’t make Hill or Stallone seem particularly old school, or even particularly old — just forgettable.

RATING 3 / 10