There’s a tinge of cynicism that befalls a large amount of critics regarding Sylvester Stallone’s action output. Not here at CHUD mind you, we’re all true blue. But elsewhere, in papers and even from a few of the usual suspects in the online blogging community, there’s an air of above this inherent with releases like Bullet to the Head, the latest in a long line of basic, rudimentary, balls-to-the-wall brutal action pictures – this time combining the talents of genre stalwarts Stallone and director Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hours).
Is Bullet to the Head a great film, a major contribution to the empire of action that pushes the boundaries on how we evaluate its place in cinema? No. Hell no it’s not. I’m not even sure it’s a good film, but it is a thrilling ride, and also the first film in this modern Testosterone Chic revival that doesn’t feel like its basing its successes off the baggage of earlier career work.
Testosterone Chic: a long, long time ago in a kingdom called Tinseltown, there was such a thing as an “action star”: an ungodly bankable commodity that specialized in high-octane fare showcasing both biceps and skills in the deadly arts. These mavericks of machismo rarely strayed into dramatic fare, though they tried their hand at comedy to wildly varying degrees of success. And before they co-opted themselves into ill-advised blues albums, political careers and Planet Hollywoods, they left a profoundly indelible mark on the 80s and early 90s with efforts like Commando, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Die Hard and Tango and Cash*.
In time, these titans lost their way and so too did their audience. Because, while all of the films I just mentioned are enjoyable movies, only one of the above is inarguably a great film. The film fan that cherishes Commando while admonishing revival pieces like The Expendables is looking at the past with far too rosy of lenses. These films were never that good to begin with, at least not in a convential sense that earns critical accolade and awards buzz. Commando’s uneven narrative and penchant for cheesiness has more in common with The Expendables than many either care to admit or fail to realize. Personally, I love them both (but c’mon, Commando’s still a late night classic).
The point is this: you can’t acknowledge the merit of one while denouncing the other, at least if you’re unwilling to acknowledge the very present flaws (though some would call them tropes) of action’s bygone era.
Films like Bullet to the Head blanket themselves in artifice, ingest oily-muscled close-ups for breakfast and spit cheesy one-liners because fuckyouwhatareyougoingtodoaboutit. Bullet to the Head, The Expendables and The Last Stand feel out of place in today’s more-nuanced climate, especially held up against the successes of a rebooted Bond or the Bournes. Though they’re no less welcome. Action changed when our definition of heroes evolved and, with that transition, the buff muscle men of the 80s and 90s became dinosaurs while a sleeker, sexier breed held sway.
The reason I place Hill’s Bullet to the Head over Last Stand, a film I enjoyed by a director I love: Bullet never reaches, content to excise the comedy and self-awareness for authenticity. If Stallone and Schwarzenegger are to soldier on with efforts like these (and they are, The Tomb, ladies and gentlemen) the old man jokes need to go. We get it, these men are ancient. Clint Eastwood got away with being Clint Eastwood for so long because he knew not to box himself in like Schwarzenegger does in Stand. Age is but a number and you can be old or be weathered. At least before Gran Torino, Eastwood was just as likely to let the cracks in his face tell the story for the viewer. In the Line of Fire is a good example of a character’s seasoned age coming into play without said character needing to spell it out. It’s a subtle but crucial difference: showing age instead of telling it.
And where Schwarzenegger feels marginalized for long stretches of Stand, there’s no question who the star of Bullet to the Head is.
Whether it’s Stallone’s statuesque presence (seriously, judging from his physique this guy’s been eating HGH by the trunkload) or Sung Kang’s likable but unmemorable turn, a buddy picture this is not. Stallone’s Jimmy Bobo can hardly be called a hero. A hitman with years of experience interspersed with the occasional prison stint, Stallone takes it down like a seasoned vet. He’s a brutal killer who doesn’t understand why a detective like Kwon (Kang), who he’s now paired with to exact revenge on the moneymen that burned him, would take a moral stance against his willingness to be a nightmarishly efficient hired gun. The tandem works because A) Stallone’s in full-on, pants-pissing Cobra mode here, and B) Kang’s content to stay out of his way and let Sly chew the scenery in a manner only the Italian Stallion can.
Any suspicion that Bullet to the Head is high art should be rightly smothered in the theatre lobby, as a supporting cast that boasts Jason Momoa and Christian Slater is shooting for a sporting mixture of pulp and cheese that works soundly against its Southern Louisiana backdrop. Momoa’s a deadly oak as the physical antagonist of the piece while Slater’s aged looks and oily demeanor will continue to land him shyster roles if he so chooses. And if Sarah Shahi’s role is to be an immeasurably sexy tattooed-bystander in the midst of this bloody melee? Mission skeezily accomplished.
This is exactly the sort of film a talent like Walter Hill exists for. Bullet to the Head’s not reaching. It’s out to achieve a very specific set of goals and does so splendidly. This is a movie that refers to henchmen as henchmen, a film where differences are settled with the viciousness of, swear to god, an axe fight. If you can’t laugh or find enjoyment at such developments, if it upsets you that Bullet to the Head isn’t intellectually stimulating, then you’re not the target audience.
But if you can dig on Rambo running roughshod over the criminal underbelly of New Orleans while the cool Korean guy from Fast Five rides shotgun, then Bullet is ready to provide all the sustenance of a 48-ounce steak, bloody and rare.
Dismiss if you must, but Bullet to the Head feels most similar to the period and genre of films it’s tipping its hat to; more so than any of its more recent predecessors – Stallone’s efforts included. In not trying to ape the style of 80s/90s action while holding true to its battle-tested frameworks, Bullet to the Head emerges as one of the more genuine homages to the era.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
*Yes, Tango and Cash.