by Tony Dayoub
Conceptually, the idea of director Walter Hill's return to cinema with a movie starring Sylvester Stallone is an appealing one, especially for this fan. Before serving an undeserved, decade-long sentence in movie jail, Hill was best known for re-inventing the action film with the prototypical buddy flick 48 Hours (1982). Though based on the graphic novel Du plomb dans la tête, Hill's newest, Bullet to the Head, might as well be a twisted spiritual sequel to the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte cop thriller. The mismatched duo here are New Orleans hitman Jimmy "Bobo" Bonomo (Stallone) and D.C. cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang). The two team up to find out who hired Bobo to execute Kwon's ex-partner (Holt McCallany), before double-crossing the button man himself and killing his fellow assassin (Jon Seda).
Stallone is the undisputed winner here, iconically presented by Hill throughout Bullet to the Head. Our introduction to Jimmy Bobo is a black-and-white medium shot of Stallone, ostensibly posing for a mug shot, but framed more like one of Tim Bradstreet's Punisher comic covers. Later, Hill illustrates Bobo's background with a quick montage of mug shots doctored up from familiar photographs of Stallone the actor from the earliest days of his career through today. Better yet, all of the humor Hill mines from this essentially dark tale with such facility depends on Stallone providing the comic relief, which he does ably. Together, Hill and Stallone seem so in tune with each other—deliberately evoking the anachronistic attitude characteristic of the macho tales they were best known for in the 80s—it's hard to believe Bullet to the Head is their first film together.
If Bullet to the Head ends up feeling unusually vacant, one can lay most of the blame in the disappointing miscasting of the dull, wooden Kang as Stallone's co-star. Flat, apathetic, unexciting, Kang seems to have been cast in order to give Stallone an ethnic foil off of which to bounce his racist barbs the way Nolte did with Murphy in 48 Hours. Except Murphy gave as good as he got, making Nolte look like a small, petty thug and putting the two stars—one a veteran character actor, the other a young, comedic upstart—on equal footing. Kang mostly just lays there and takes it. Whether that's because Taylor Kwon is written as the most fatuous, moronic do-gooder to ever appear in a crime thriller or Kang is just playing him that way is hard to tell. But Kang as Kwon is a cinematic black hole, sucking the energy and considerable life out of Bullet to the Head every time he's on screen.
Fortunately, the supporting cast is rounded out by interesting TV faces who each sport their own appealing quirks. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost) is Bullet to the Head's hulking villain, a canny capitalist frustrated by his dependency on henchmen of limited vision due to his own physical disabilities. Brian Van Holt (Cougar Town) brings his loose cowboy charm to his extended cameo as the guy who brokered the film's inciting contract kill. The gorgeous Sarah Shahi (Fairly Legal) and Weronika Rosati (Luck) offer the requisite gratuitous nudity as the movie's damsels in distress—Bobo's daughter Lisa and a prostitute whose life Bobo spares, respectively. Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa takes pole position as the brute who killed Bobo's friend, taking advantage of his spotlight with a climactic axe-fight set-piece brilliantly staged by Hill.
Exciting fight sequences? Check. Beautiful if superfluous women? Check. Minor but talented supporting players? Check. Throw in Christian Slater, a Ferrari, plus some grimy location shooting in New Orleans, and Bullet to the Head has all the makings of a grade-B 80s action movie. Bullet to the Head feels like it isn't about to be released so much as it could have been unearthed from a time capsule buried when I was in middle school. Just ignore pretty-boy Kang whenever he thuds into a scene, lest Bullet to the Head slips down a notch to grade-C.