Title: Bullet to the Head
Director: Walter Hill
Writers: Walter Hill & Alessandro Camon (Based on the story by Alexis Nolent & Colin Wilson)
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Christian Slater, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Release Date: February 1, 2013
MPAA: Rated R
Bullet to the Head is the newest action flick from Walter Hill, which makes this film his first theatrical release in eleven years. Walter Hill (famous for such films as The Warriors, The Long Riders, 48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Red Heat, and Last Man Standing) has made pulp action flicks and westerns for practically the entirety of his career, so he seems to be a natural fit for a film based on a comic that is essentially a throwback to dime novel pulp crime stories of yesteryear.
Bullet to the Head is based on the French comic book Du plomb dans la tête, a crime story action-fest where a pair of cops and a pair of hitmen team up to take out a bunch of baddies, and have a little murder mystery-intrigue-adventure along the way. The two stories don’t play out exactly the same. For instance, in the comic the group of four becomes a group of two about halfway through the story, as Jimmy’s (Stallone’s character) partner and the one good cop both die, leaving Jimmy and the crooked cop to team up on an adventure that leads them to New Orleans. In the film, we have Jimmy’s partner and the crooked cop bite the dust in the very beginning (not going to say how it differs from the book other than that), leaving Jimmy and the good cop to team up, and they’re already in New Orleans as the film begins. Now you’ve got the overall gist of the plot, without revealing the actual story (because you should go see it, of course).
Even though this is a comic book movie, this isn’t a superhero movie, and it has more in common with other crime-action comic book films, like RED or A History of Violence (without being anywhere near as good as either) than it does with any other comic book movie.
The acting for the most part is all pretty sub-par, not subdued or subtle or any other “sub” word, just sub-par. It seems like everyone is either phoning it in or overacting, with no middle ground at all. Stallone isn’t playing a part in this film. He’s playing his persona, and not any of the good aspects of it. Forget performances like Rocky, First Blood, or Cop Land, this is Stallone playing the caricature that gets made fun of from The Specialist, Assassins, and Judge Dredd. Christian Slater is at least entertaining as he plays a caricature of himself; everyone else seems as if they just came in to do one take and leave it, good or bad.
There’s one moment of actually convincing acting in the entire film, which happens when the good cop, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), takes a huge gut punch from Stallone and drops like a sack of potatoes, and then spends the next moments pained, out of breath, and thoroughly pissed off.
The rest of the film’s parts combine to form the makings of a solid film. There’s great pacing, with nice slow character beats between the ramped-up action, and the story moves along at a brisk enough pace, yet manages to avoid feeling like it’s simply non-stop action. One nice visual queue from the film comes from a particular scene transition that comes up often enough to take notice, but not so much that it becomes annoying, wherein the screen image flares up like a matchstick and the scene burns out like an old flashbulb. The best part of this film is its musical score, brought to us by relative newcomer Steve Mazzaro. Heavy guitar riffs with strong bass lines give the music a grungy, gritty, tough quality that sounds like a cross between a pulsing noir moment and a bar-room brawl; a perfect match for this movie.
The second best aspect of the film, and a true moment of high praise from this critic, is the way the fights are presented. Oft-times, the music completely drops out and the sound mix is ramped-up to really emphasize the impacts, punches, and falls. The camera gets in close enough to make the viewer feel the frenzy of the combatants, but not so close that you can’t see what’s happening. Gone is the “filmed under the armpit” shaky-cam nonsense seen in films like The Bourne Ultimatum or Batman Begins, and the viewer is treated to choreography that is about 50% realistic and 50% dramatic that they can actually see.
The worst part of this film is unfortunately the ending, and it has nothing to do with the story or even the way things get wrapped up. The problem is the final scene of the movie. It’s as if the movie ended two minutes earlier and nobody told the main character Jimmy, who starts rambling on about nothing. It’s a completely random moment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film, not to mention that it’s also outstandingly boring and just drags down the last few moments of what could have been a decent ending.
As a random side note, be sure to watch out for the scene with all of Jimmy’s mug shots at the beginning of the film, and see how many Stallone films/eras you can pick out (my favorite is the shot from First Blood). In fact, this movie seems to feature a decent number of nods to previous Stallone movies, which will be an aspect either loved or hated by viewers.
All in all, Bullet to the Head isn’t a great film. It is, however, a decent throwback to old-school action flicks of the 80s, and unabashedly so. If you enjoy the generic 80s style action films, not the standouts like Die Hard or Predator but generic flicks like any of the Death Wish sequels, you’ll be right at home here. If you’re expecting something deeper, you’ll be disappointed.
As an adaptation of the French comic book it’s based on, this film sits somewhere around a 7 out of 10.
As a standalone film, on its own merits this movie is sitting firmly around a 6.5.