"Bullet" A Worthy Callback To Stallone's Glory Days

Simply put, it would be irresponsible not to compare Sylvester Stallone’s latest actioner to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent “The Last Stand.” The two films reflect a certain kind of light on each other, a light that makes their successes and failures that much clearer. Judging by their trailers, both pictures appeared to be gleefully stupid, blood-pumping throwbacks, a kind of defibrillator to the chest of action cinema. With each lead coming off the unexpected pleasure that was “The Expendables 2,” early 2013 was ripe with potential for a renewed rivalry. Then, “The Last Stand” hit theaters – and nobody saw it. There would be no nostalgic box office showdown.

The reviews for “The Last Stand” were middling, but audiences could see its general obnoxiousness from a mile away. It sold itself as a retro actioner, when in reality it was anything but. It offered nothing but loud, pointless chase scenes with copious amounts of bad special effects, a lame duck of a story, and an endlessly annoying supporting cast. The filmmakers brushed it with far too many coats of stupid, and the end result was a car wreck of legendary proportions. It’s odd to write about such a recent film in the past tense, but “The Last Stand” is already dead and buried. Let’s leave it that way. Thankfully, this tone deafness is not shared by the no-frills “Bullet To The Head,” an almost polar opposite of Schwarzenegger’s abysmal comeback vehicle. I can only hope it doesn’t suffer the same fate with audiences.

Directed by Walter Hill (“The Warriors,” “48 Hrs.”) and based on a graphic novel, “Bullet To The Head” follows the story of a New Orleans hitman, Jimmy Bobo (Stallone), out for revenge, desperate to kill the man who killed his partner. Jimmy isn’t exactly a character to root for, but his charm comes in knowing he’s a scumbag and quietly fighting it beneath his tough exterior. Like Jimmy, the film has a certain level of self-awareness – it knows it’s stupid, but it doesn’t exploit its own stupidity. When Stallone growls that he “doesn’t work with cops,” we can’t help but laugh knowingly. It’s the simplest – not the loudest or dumbest – clichés that make audiences feel the most comfortable.

Jimmy inevitably joins forces with a D.C. detective, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), the two seeking a common enemy – a mercenary by the name of Keegan (Jason Momoa). Christian Slater, still doing the same Jack Nicholson impersonation, is also on hand to remind us why he’s no longer a movie star and Sarah Shahi plays Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter.

From the opening scene, Hill immediately finds a nice groove for the picture. The story ebbs and flows nicely, the dialogue straddling the line between silly and dead serious, and Hill knows exactly how to punctuate the surprising amount of character development with bursts of extreme violence. The cinematography is a bit wonky at times, with multiple unnecessary flashes of yellow and orange to indicate transitions, but New Orleans is captured beautifully. Most films shot in the Big Easy go out of their way to mask the location, so it’s absolutely refreshing to see a picture embrace the city like this one does.

The biggest flaw of “Bullet To The Head” is the dividing line between Bobo and the film’s villains. Jimmy solves most of his problems with quick fits of violence – at the expense of bad guys, mind you – but if his opponents did the same, the film would be ten minutes long. It’s a minor quibble, but it feels like Jimmy doesn’t exist in the same world as his foes and it makes him even harder to root for. Other problems crop up when the picture tries to evoke other, better films (particularly “Live And Let Die” and the most famous scene from David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”), but seeing Sly slink into a Turkish bath to the strains of a “When The Levee Breaks” rip-off is amusing, nonetheless.

“Bullet To The Head” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and that’s precisely its purpose. It’s a slow burn of a buddy cop thriller that sticks to the most basic of action movie clichés, entirely ignoring the CGI and overzealous plotting of the last twenty years of big-budget cinema. It quickly finds its niche and wisely remains there for the 90 minutes that follow. Eminently watchable – and featuring Stallone’s best performance in years – the film deserves to the find the audience that “The Last Stand” so callously kicked away. The 80s action star rivalry may not have been renewed at the box office, but as for quality and respect for the genre, Stallone wins this round by TKO.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 1, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Walter Hill
Screenwriter: Alessandro Camon
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Weronika Rosati, Jason Momoa
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, bloody images, language, some nudity and brief drug use)