The movie’s titled Bullet to the Head, what the heck do you think it’s going to be? For a few years we’ve seen Sylvester Stallone make a determined effort to bring back the 1980s with a slew of vintage action flicks, the type of mumble-mouthed “shoot first, ask no questions ever” projects that made him an icon of the genre. While those films were often deadly serious to a comical fault, Bullet to the Head has just enough self-awareness to make for an enjoyable, no-holds barred macho thriller.
Once intended to be directed by Wayne Kramer (The Cooler), Stallone enlisted the capable noir stylings of veteran Walter Hill (The Warriors) for his film in over a decade. Stallone and Kramer beefed over the dark tone, which Stallone hoped to lighten up by making it an off-color buddy comedy. It was a smart decision, muted by the incredible lack of chemistry between Stallone and Sung Kang (Fast Five). Set in New Orleans, not that it really matter, Stallone plays hitman Jimmy Bobo, who is tough enough that nobody makes fun of his name. Kang snoozes his way through as Detective Taylor Kwong, a boring and straight-laced wuss who teams up with Bobo to find the merc who put their partners on ice.
From the very beginning, the film barrels through in a straight line as Bobo and Kwong trade overtly racist insults, interspersed with stops so some lowlife can get filled full of lead. It’s interesting to see Hill, a refugee from a time when movie violence needn’t be quite so graphic to be effective, indulge in it a little bit. The action is brutal and often quite preposterous in its execution, but Hill stages it with workmanlike precision. The soundtrack leans heavily on a single guitar-heavy riff that sounds like it was conjured up in the backroom of a biker bar. Simple, but effective. That should probably be the tagline for the whole shebang.
Like Stallone, Bobo is strictly old school, and doesn’t seem to understand how Kwong can find out everything about a suspect in seconds just by using his phone. The old vs. new dynamic makes for a few entertaining moments, mostly due to Stallone carrying Kang through. Even at his advanced age, Stallone’s charisma dwarfs Kang, making him look fairly incompetent when he’s been very good in the past. A better match turns out to be Jason Momoa, who brings a genuine sense of menace every time he calmly enters the picture. That Hawaiian cool may not have worked for him as Conan the Barbarian, but it makes him an effective and scary villain as Keegan, who ends up in a pretty awesome axe-battle against Bobo. Sure, it’s kind of ridiculous, too, but at least everybody seems to know it. “What are we, vikings!?”
There’s not an ounce of originality or nuance in the script, which could have been hatched over lunch at one of Stallone’s restaurants. Nobody’s coming into Bullet to the Head expecting intricacy, but for no-nonsense tough guy action, you could certainly do worse.