Walter Hill‘s long overdue return to theaters opens with a CGI bullet fired straight at viewers as it blasts through the various studio logos on its way to our brain. For better or worse, the film that follows delivers on that graphical promise.
James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) is a
New Orleans Crescent City hit-man with Hollywood scruples (“no women, no kids”) who finds himself double-crossed after an otherwise successful job. He escapes a bathroom assault by a large, Conanic man named Keegan (Jason Momoa), but Bonomo’s partner isn’t so lucky. D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) also lost a partner recently, his ex-partner being the guy who was capped by Bonomo in the opening scene, and now he’s made his way to the Big Easy to investigate.
Kwon and Bonomo find each other thanks to some incredible detective work on the former’s part (the only example of his skills found here) and decide to join forces to catch the bad guys further up the chain of command including Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. But working together won’t be easy for these two gunslingers from opposite sides of the law… especially after dirty cops, racial insensitivity and Bonomo’s hot, tattooed daughter (Sarah Shahi) enter the mix.
“There’s nothing you can do to me that I haven’t already done to myself.”
Bullet to the Head is probably the best that can be expected from Hill at this point, and while that may sound like a knock on the man it’s actua– yeah, okay, it’s a knock. The formula he’s following (with writer Alessandro Camon) is one familiar to anyone who watched and enjoyed action comedies from the 80s including some of Hill’s own. It’s more Red Heat than it is 48 Hrs though resulting in far more full contact action and goofy laughs than actual style or substance.
The two men go through the expected dance from enemies to wary partners to respected equals, and while little happens with an original slant their exchanges are fueled by some fairly fun banter. Most of the laughs come in the form of racial dings as Bonomo refers to Kwon alternately as Confucius, Oddjob, Kato and more, but there’s also some more traditional one-liners that earn a laugh after some poor shmuck has been blown away in a misty shower of CGI blood.
The film works well enough as cheap entertainment, but even the most superficial attention reveals a nonsensical plot involving real estate, handicapped Africans, and a roster of policemen characters wearing placards labeled “shh, I’m dirty.” I can only assume the sheer volume of dirty cops is why nowhere in the film do they say or show the words “New Orleans.” It’s referred to as Crescent City ten times or more, and while that’s a real nickname for New Orleans it probably hasn’t been uttered by ten people in the real world in the past year.
There’s a low-rent feel to much of the film from the clearly photoshopped mug shots to a French Quarter party that looks like they tried to recreate the one from Eyes Wide Shut on a budget. (Oh what I would have given to hear Stallone utter “fidelio”…) Story is doled out, often by a wonderfully entertaining Slater as a character named Mr. Exposition (may not be his actual character name), and we’re shown odd and unnecessary flashbacks to events that need no explaining.
Stallone remains a formidable presence onscreen, and even though it’s painful to watch him walk his fight scenes are believable in their ferocity… at least when we can see and decipher them. Punches come with sonic impacts equal to the film’s many gunshots, and while too much of the action is edited with a blender some of the fights impress including a steam room brawl and parts of the finale.
Kang fares far worse with a character who shows ridiculously good detective skills early on only to grow stupider by the minute. He literally offers nothing further to the investigation aside from what he gets off his smartphone, and he’s never allowed to reach Stallone’s level of witty banter. You read that right. Stallone level of witty banter.
Bullet to the Head is probably equal distance between good and bad: some of the action is brutal, bloody fun, while other scenes are a mess of jumbled edits and CGI. Some laughs hit home while others fall dead on impact. Some parts of the story, well, the action and jokes will just have to do.
The Upside: Gratuitous violence and nudity; some funny one-liners; some good action, but…
The Downside: Too much of the action is tightly shot and edited; plot progression is nonsensical; Stallone may not be the best (or most coherent) narrator
On the Side: Thomas Jane was originally cast in the Taylor Kwon role (although his name would probably have been different) but producers dropped him in favor of adding some color