Film Review: Bullet to the Head (2013)

You can almost smell the formaldehyde emanating from Bullet to the Head, the new Sly Stallone vehicle directed by the ancient and irrelevant Walter Hill. From the formulaic “odd-couple” mash-up of Stallone’s thuggish Jimmy Bobo and the nebbish cop Taylor Kwon (Suang Yang), to the frankly pedantic action scenes, Bullet to the Head doesn’t quite make its viewers wish to literally experience its title – but it comes close, very close indeed.

Nothing encapsulates the ineffectiveness of Bullet to the Head quite like its star Sylvester Stallone, whose roid-riddled body and disturbingly angular face has never looked scarier or more inhuman. His Jimmy Bobo – along with his character from The Expendables, Barney Ross – are further proof of the actor’s general refusal to allow his dynamic status from the 1980s to fade. His career in the 2000s has been built around this theme of stubborn resurrection, including his new versions of Rocky and Rambo.

Those iconic characters maintained our attention due to the sheer mythic weight of their presence, but no such magnetism is created in Bullet to the Head. Here, Stallone again finds himself in one of his stock action roles from the 1980s. The only difference this time around is that the culture has changed. The style of Bullet to the Head is now so dated and dusty that one can’t even really take any nostalgic pleasure. The whole thing just sucks.

This is sad because after a ten-year reprieve from features Walter Hill’s return to cinemas should have been something to celebrate. It is easy to understand what drew him to the project. The set-up for Bullet to the Head is classic Hill in many ways, offering the same sort of violent machismo found throughout the director’s canon. However, Hill’s gravitation for borderline B-movie material has rarely been as blatant as it is here. Worse still, the director fails to incorporate any of the fantastical elegance which elevated earlier action pieces like Hard Times and The Driver. He opts instead for a listless palette, and spends way too much time on the banal car conversations between Bobo and Kwon.

These pacing issues are the central culprit behind the non-existent energy of Bullet to the Head. For a film which features what should have been a familiar yet enjoyably pulpy storyline (a cop and a hitman reluctantly joining forces against a shared enemy), Bullet to the Head’s forward momentum is diluted through seemingly endless scenes of stereotypical baddies expounding upon their master plan (something about illegal real-estate practices) or Stallone and Yang trading barbs straight out of the first draft of Rush Hour 3. The film yearns for an editor with a vendetta, or a writer innovative enough to shake-up the clichés synonymous with the two central characters’ relationship.

In keeping up with the times, Bullet to the Head treads in material so familiar that simply labeling its existence redundant is insufficient. There are a myriad of differences between something like this Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s immensely superior The Last Stand. One of them is the superior efficacy of The Last Stand’s performances. Schwarzenegger always was more skilled than Stallone when it came to successfully anchoring an action film. His ability to balance an carnage with a crafty sense of humor crowned him the undisputed king of this particular type of film. (The Rock is of course now his successor.)

Conversely, Stallone seems to have never been in on the joke. Throughout a majority of his non-Rocky or Rambo films he has lumbered through various set-pieces with an annoying, self-serious persona. Bullet to the Head is one of the most egregious examples of this. Sure, the film tries hard to establish a sort of fluid, comic energy between Stallone and Yang’s characters. Yet for the most part Stallone plays his character very straight, and does not bring any sort of nuance or complexity to Bobo. The character remains a muscle-bound brute who is unlikable and uninteresting.

He is also not supported effectively by either the film’s supporting cast or the incoherent script by Alessandro Camon. Yang looks completely lost in his role, and is also not believable as a cop pulled into the unlikely situation of partnering with a hitman. The beautiful Sarah Shahi shows up, heavily tattooed yet poorly written as Stallone’s somewhat estranged daughter (their relationship is underdeveloped to say the least). There is also a scenery-chewing Christian Slater (a long way from True Romance) and Jason Momoa, whose smug juggernaut of a villain is one of the film’s best attributes, although his motivations are also left extremely ambiguous.

A B-movie both aesthetically and thematically, Bullet to the Head is an unwelcome entry into the annals of the 80′s action film resurgence. Banal direction, underwritten characters and torpid pacing derail much of the film’s energy. But it is the vanity of Stallone and his desire to continually turn out products like Bullet to the Head that makes the film so utterly repellent to watch. It almost makes one want to respond directly to the film’s ”Revenge never gets old” tagline. Someone needs to let Stallone know that, contrary to what he seems to believe, it almost certainly does.

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