After coming together for the action movie supernova of Expendables 2 last year, the grumpy old men of Hollywood – Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis – are hoping to take 2013 by divide and conquer, each with their own spin on the old-dude-with-a-gun setup. As we have seen, The Last Stand may have brought Arnold back to the top of his game (although not the top of the box office charts), and there’s no doubt A Good Day To Die Hard will fare better financially later in February, but for now we have Bullet To The Head, Sly’s team-up with seasoned action movie pro Walter Hill.
Adapted from the French graphic novel of the same name (or Du Plomb Dans La Tete. if you want to be accurate), Bullet To The Head is a sleazy, straight-up action flick that doesn’t dare subvert or exceed one’s expectations. Stallone strolls through the carnage as a mean, no-bullshit old sod who is roped into doing some honest-to-goodness heroics after he’s double-crossed by the mob. Seeking revenge, he pairs up with a technophilic cop, forming an unlikely – if generically made-for-measure – alliance to bring the bastards to justice.
Before the opening credits have rolled, Hill makes sure to tick the trash-flick boxes of hard drugs, naked women and point-blank gunshots – just in case you were wondering if the 71 year old director, or 66 year old lead, were getting soft in their old age. But while Hill’s reputation rests on some of the best cult action films of the 1970s and 1980s, from The Driver to The Warriors, Bullet To The Head finds him adrift in a post-Sin City world of gritty violence and watered-down noir. While the film never aspires to be more than a grim schlock-fest, Hill’s script (co-written with Oscar nominee Alessandro Camon) is a mess of hard-boiled dialogue and incomprehensible plotting about West African crime bosses extorting their way into lucrative real estate deals, and unseemly conspiracies that go ‘all the way up to Washington’.
Most disappointing is the odd-couple dynamic of Stallone’s hitman (Jimmy Bobo, a name that keeps getting funnier as the tension rises, and every gruff goon in the movie barks it out) and Sung Kang’s Korean-American greenhorn Detective Kwon. Considering that Hill helped create the buddy cop genre with the likes of 48 Hrs and Red Heat, the relationship between the leads is surprisingly stilted, and their continuous banter is excruciating. One of their exchanges plays out as an absurd in-movie advert for Blackberry, as Bobo lectures Kwon about the many ways that he could use the smartphone (which the cop had been using all along as an exposition device) as an offensive weapon.
But the film has an ace up its sleeve – and it’s not the jittery cameo from Christian Slater. No, its an under-utilised turn from Jason Momoa as the unscrupulous hitman hot on the tail of our heroes. Looking like Brandon Lee on steroids, Momoa cuts a mean figure, hulking and glaring in some of the film’s better scenes of wanton destruction. It’s a cat-and-mouse relationship that builds towards a final showdown, one that may make or break the film if you’re the kind of viewer who desires such matchups. Stallone versus Momoa. One on one. A passing of the action movie torch that, despite the title on the poster, isn’t played out with pistols. No, they’re going to fight to the death with axes. Axes!
If that gets your juices flowing, then you’re in for one hell of a ride. If not, you’ll find it impossible to ignore that Hill ruins the action sequences by throwing the camera around, substituting chaos for clarity, or that the director litters his film with film burn transitions, crash-zooms and a barbecued blues-rock soundtrack that could be the work of any journeyman filmmaker, not the latest from a cult icon.
Nevertheless, Stallone is at home here, and his weathered features tell a tale that the script can’t hope to capture. When the film cuts to a portrait from his younger days, and we see a Rocky-era headshot, you almost buy into the story that ‘the game got rough’, and the blackening of this sourpuss’ soul has been etched into his face.
Perhaps the game got rough for Hill, too, for after years of finding style and humour in genre films, he has grown cynical. From the hackneyed, humourless script to the overbaked direction, Bullet To The Head’s every shortcoming is on full display. It is not fun enough, daring enough, committed or irreverent enough to be anything but a bland retread, a lazy stopgap between bigger and brighter projects. Rather expendable, really.