What demand there is today for action stars of the past making big screen returns is unclear, with Sly Stallone’s Expendables films raking in their fair share of cash, while Arnie’s latest vehicle crashed and burned by the roadside. A far greater box office disaster, though far less deservedly so, is Bullet to the Head, an ’80s throwback revenge thriller starring Stallone.
Based on a French graphic novel, Bullet to the Head is directed by another action movie legend, Walter Hill, that pulp fiction pioneer behind The Driver, The Warriors and 48 Hrs. Now in his 70s, Hill hasn’t let his talents for bare-bones action fare slip, pacing his new film like an ’80s thriller while keeping it modern with some fast editing and bright, lens-flaring lighting.
Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo, a New Orleans hitman with a code of honour (that old Le Samouraï cliché) who goes on a rampage when he is double-crossed and his partner is murdered. The story mirrors that of 48 Hrs., which saw a tough white cop paired with a cocksure black criminal; here the criminal is the tough guy, landed with a cool young cop tagging along. Attempting to recreate the racial clash at the core of 48 Hrs., Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) is Korean-America, which throws up a few witty, casually racist gags, but hardly has the same potency as the Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy pairing. The ‘out with the old, in with the new’ theme is underscored by Kwon’s handiness with a smartphone for tracking down leads, while luddite Bobo would rather use his blunted wits. It’s almost a commentary on how omnipresent phone and internet access has killed off the kinds of film that Hill and his peers used to make.
The odd couple blaze a violent trail across New Orleans, which leads to corrupt businessmen involved in the redevelopment of the city post Katrina. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays the crippled and corrupt boss, Christian Slater is his Gordon Gecko-ish lawyer, Jason Momoa his human tank, all staples of the westerns and thrillers that made Hill the filmmaker he is.
It’s all very predictable, right down to the villains kidnapping Bobo’s daughter (Sarah Shahi) to wheel her out during the final confrontation, but it’s exactly what it wants to be. Hill has taken the pulp techniques he mastered back in the day and set them loose in an age of convoluted twists and never-ending action scenes.
The script is light and bouncy, with a few great one liners, delivered by Stallone in an “I’m too old for this shit” manner. Like Hill’s dream project, 1984’s Streets of Fire (also a box office flop), Bullet revels in the simplicity of the ‘last man standing’ trope and the variety of kills and explosions you can throw into that mix. The final showdown between Stallone and Momoa is a clear homage to the finale of Streets of Fire, one of several nods to Hill’s past works in a film that feels almost like a retrospective.
Yet despite what a throwback the concept is, there’s no question that Bullet to the Head is a 2013 movie, with a contemporary sheen to proceedings that separates it dramatically in look from Hill’s darker films of the ’70s and ’80s. New Orleans has never looked so bright by day or by night. A shot of a dead body floating in a pool, filmed from the bottom of the pool, seems to take a crack at Sunset Boulevard and its successors by having Stallone’s figure, standing at the edge, completely hazed out of focus. This may be a dumb action movie, but it’s a playful one.
While Hill is back doing what he does best, there’s little denying it’s not what audiences want any more. But for those nostalgic for old-school midnight movie fare in an age of endless CGI, Bullet to the Head will satisfy the craving in a manner far more satisfying than The Expendables or The Last Stand. This has no desire to be big, it only wants to be fun. And damn it, it is.