When people speak of aging action stars heading out and making movies again, the knee jerk reaction is to call the film a throwback to the 1980s when such over the top post-Vietnam filmmaking was in vogue. But calling the Sylvester Stallone and Walter Hill collaboration Bullet to the Head an 80s throwback is a bit of a disservice. It can’t even really be considered another stepping stone in Stallone’s potential comeback journey. If anything, this film harkens back to the action films of the 90s – around the time that the Academy Award winner was making films like Demolition Man, Assassins, and The Specialist. It’s more efficient and streamlined than over the top and batshit insane, and that’s an honest compliment even if the film just kind of exists without going the extra mile. And while Stallone doesn’t get much out of this shoot ‘em up, Hill gets the chance to reassert himself as an ace genre director.
After taking out a dirty former cop from out of town, New Orleans hitman Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) watches his partner get murdered in a bar by a hulking, psychotic thug (Jason Momoa). Keen on finding out what happened and why he’s also being marked for death, Bobo reluctantly and tentatively teams up with a Washington DC cop (Sung Kang) that was investigating the guy who was initially hit.
That’s really all you need to know about Bullet to the Head in terms of plotting, and I can’t say exactly if the film is faithful to the French graphic novels it’s based on. The actual details – which naturally in this day and age involve a villain trying to gentrify a downtrodden neighbourhood – are 100% incidental and not really worth thinking about. It’s an action film from the final part of the last century like Assassins or Schwarznegger’s Eraser that simply exists to have a threadbare plot that lead to scenes that are only designed to be interesting and entertaining while staying on an established course. It’s fine action movie junk food, but it’s not the constantly wise cracking, self-aware stuff that people are used to these days. Had it come out in the 90s it would be a perfect example of where the action genre was at the time, and its of no surprise that producer Joel Silver’s name appears attached here since this is exactly the kind of film he was known for back in the day. No bullshit, minimal amount of comedic moments, brutal, thuggish, and with swagger to spare. It’s not perfect, but there’s definitely a time and a place for this sort of thing.
Stallone does some pretty decent work here, and he’s not merely sleepwalking through a role he’s so obviously played before. Also adding to the charm of the film is that it rarely plays up the fact that well into his 60s Stallone might be getting too old for this type of role. That was starting to be a plot device in danger of growing old itself after Stallone’s own Expendables films. Jimmy Bobo is a guy who does his job, lives his life, has no regrets, and never once questions if its time to get out. He, much like the movie itself, simply exists and doesn’t really say much.
The supporting cast has a few nice moments. Kang gives Stallone someone credible and equal to banter with, and it’s nice to see him not saddled with a professional comic as a sidekick. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gets to chew some scenery as the crime lord pulling all the strings, and Christian Slater gives a surprisingly strong turn in a small role as a lackey lawyer for the bad guys. Momoa, however, stands to gain the most from this as he’s clearly relishing the chance to play a crazed, unstoppable killing machine capable of taking out a dozen men in a matter of minutes by barely moving or breaking a sweat.
But the film really belongs to the usually pretty great and sadly forgotten about Hill (48 Hrs., The Warriors, Streets of Fire, Southern Comfort, Trespass, and the list goes on). Within seconds one doesn’t feel the nostalgia of an actor having a victory lap, and viewers familiar with Hill’s work will know exactly who made the film they are about to watch. It’s flashy and compact in ways few action and thriller directors ever mastered. It has personality rather than simply seeming like a blank canvas that could have been painted on by anybody. It might not be one of his best films since there’s not really much to say about it all on any sort of thematic level, but it’s more than enough to make me wish that he worked a lot more than he does.