Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Heavy Action: Bullet to the Head

Bullet to the Head is the first collaboration between two titans of '80s action: Sylvester Stallone and Walter Hill. Had it been made in the prime of both men, it might have really been something. This version just came too late. Actually, wait: Stallone has aged just fine into the part. The movie needs 2012 Stallone and 1985 Walter Hill. That's the movie I want to see.

Stallone plays James "Bobo" Bonomo, a New Orleans hitman who is double crossed after killing a dirty cop. His partner is murdered by hulking mercenary Keegan (Jason Momoa), putting Bobo on the path to revenge to find out who set him and take them down. A D.C. cop named Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) comes to New Orleans to investigate the cop's murder, because they used to work together. He teams up with Bobo, knowing that they have greater likelihood of uncovering the culprits if they work together...but only if they DON'T KILL EACH OTHER FIRST! Because buddy cops. And bullets to the head. And casual racism! And zzzzzzzzzzz.

There's a very obvious structure to this movie, which probably comes from the French graphic novel on which it's based. It's every revenge movie ever made: Bobo and Kwon move up the ladder of bad guys until they get to the top. On paper, it seems like it should work. In practice, though, it just feels repetitive and episodic, maybe because each new encounter with a bad guy (including Brian Van Holt and a dependably slimy Christian Slater, who has found a second career playing characters like this in action movies) offers no new information besides the name of the next guy. Find a guy, kill him. Find a guy, kill him. The stakes never raise. The mystery never deepens. The screenplay should be a tower that builds and builds on top of itself. Instead, it's just a bunch of blocks laying side by side.
A 66-year old Stallone acquits himself just fine, inasmuch that he commits fully to a character that's not all that interesting to begin with. My problem is more with the character of Bobo himself, who, like Ray Cobretti in Cobra, exists just to be badass and cool in every scene. He's never not cool. He's never not the toughest guy in the room. That kind of sameness is boring, especially when there's an opportunity here to create a character that's more than just "played by Sylvester Stallone." There are a few fleeting moments of humanity that escape, like when Bobo talks about how he knows he did a bad job as a father (oh, right; his daughter, played by tattoo artist played by Sarah Shahi, factors heavily into the movie), or -- my personal favorite -- when he's accused of hating cats and responds with "I don't mind cats. I just don't like dander." That's in the first couple minutes of the movie, and I perked up. Unexpected levity and interesting dialogue? This movie is going to be good!

That was the last such moment in the entire movie.

I'm a big fan of Sung Kang, who plays Stallone's partner; anyone who has heard our podcast on Fast Five knows what a crush I have on his character Han. But he feels miscast here, not just because his laconic energy is totally at odds with Stallone's slurring growl. He makes the stakes feel too low, like he doesn't quite care if he solves the case or not (which, for the record, would actually make for a more interesting movie). The movie also can't decide what motivates the character. What kind of cop is he? Does he really care about following the letter of the law? Because he keeps saying that he does. But then he also willingly teams up with a known killer and continually allows him to murder people. There is the suggestion that he's making an exception to break the case -- that he'll bend the rules as far as he can, but once things are done all the deals are done and all the bad guys (including Bobo) will have to answer for what they have done. This is "suggested" by lines of dialogue that explicitly state as much, because this is that kind of movie. But it never informs the Kwon character. He doesn't exist in a grey area because he's compromising his morals to get the job done. He exists in a grey area because neither the screenwriter nor the actor commit to one or the other.

The best thing about the movie is Jason Momoa, who registers more in his supporting role than in the entirety of the disappointing remake of Conan the Barbarian (he was not what was wrong with that movie; a bad script and Marcus Nispel are what was wrong with that movie). He's about the only thing that pops off of Bullet to the Head, and really deserves to become an action star based on his work here. I always liked him on Stargate Atlantis (Ronan Dex represent!), though that was more for his character and his physical presence than for his performance -- he was the muscle, the badass, the Chewbacca. He was great on Game of Thrones (Khal Drogo represent!) because he was a monster -- a terrifying presence of muscle and eyeliner and Golden Crowns. But in Bullet to the Head, he finally gets to be a physical presence and act. He gets a speech near the end of the movie that's cynical and outlines his entire worldview (the one that's constantly being alluded to by the other characters, who keep referring to Keegan's Code [I would see a movie called Keegan's Code]) right before he takes part in a brutal axe fight. It's the best acting in the movie. Someone find Momoa the right action vehicle soon, please.
So while this is the first theatrically-released, non-franchise Stallone action movie since Get Carter in 2000 (an underrated movie that I like more than this one), the story here isn't Stallone's comeback -- that happened years ago with the one-two success of Rocky Balboa and Rambo, not to mention both Expendables movies. The big story here is the return of director Walter Hill, director of The Warriors and Red Heat and the great Streets of Fire, who hasn't made a movie since the prison boxing movie Undisputed in 2002. And as Walter Hill's comeback movie, Bullet in the Head is a big disappointment. Yes, the signifiers of a Walter Hill movie are in place: brutal violence, lots of tough guy dialogue, nonstop blues guitar and harmonica on the soundtrack. It all adds up to something that doesn't feel so much like an imitation as it does the work of a guy who no longer has it.

That's probably not fair, as the movie underwent a lot of problems -- its release was pushed back almost a full year, for starters -- and I think Hill lost some of the control of the movie (I don't have that confirmed, because who the fuck do I know that would confirm it?), which might explain some of the sloppiness. Hill is a director famous for his clean, no-nonsense action, but here appears to be copying the Paul Greenrass-Bourne style of action, with lots of shaky camera and too much of the fighting staged in close-up. That's disappointing. Some of the action is shot well -- the climactic axe fight works, largely because it is an AXE FIGHT between two guys with at least a 16 inch height difference between them -- but much of it is the kind of photography that manufactures business and chaos by making sure the audience can't follow what's going on. Hill, who once upon a time basically invented the buddy cop action movie with 48 Hrs. (and then did it again in Red Heat, which is by no means great but is more than passable), tries to repeat some of that success here with far, far inferior results. The circumstances that force Kwon and Bobo together are thin at best, and the racial barbs that Bobo casually throws out ("Why don't you read some fucking TEA LEAVES?") feel forced -- weak reminders of the genuine racial tension between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. It's a guy trying to play his greatest hits when he can't remember the words to the songs.

Bullet to the Head was originally going to be directed by Wayne Kramer, who made the COMPLETELY CRAZY Running Scared with Paul Walker a few years ago, but he quit the movie after disagreeing with Stallone about the tone. Sung Kang was brought in by Joel Silver (replacing Thomas Jane, who would have fit much better in the Walter Hill universe) to give the movie more "global" appeal. I'm all for Sung Kang getting more work, but thinking like that is eroding the quality of movies. It's purely a business decision, not an artistic one, and doesn't take into account whether or not Kang is even right for the movie. He's not. I like him as an actor. I like diversity in movies, especially action movies. I'm not advocating for the all-white pairing of Stallone and Tom Jane because of the actors' race. I just think that cast might have eradicated some of this movie's problems.
And, just like The Last Stand a few weeks ago, Bullet to the Head absolutely DIED at the box office (it was Stallone's lowest opening since Nighthawks in 1981, grossing less in its first weekend than Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Assassins), which is just further proof that audiences aren't interested in old-school action movies -- even messy, problematic ones like this -- unless it's The Expendables. I can't quite wrap my head around that. The whole thing that people seem to respond to in The Expendables is the '80s throwback vibe, but either they'll only accept it in large doses (six different '80s stars instead of just one) or they're just enjoying it ironically. As a fan of Heavy Action, either answer is disappointing to me. Every time a movie like this shits the bed financially, there's less and less of a chance of another one getting made. Studios won't bankroll a solo Stallone or Schwarzenegger action movie. Walter Hill won't get another job. The kind of movie that Bullet in the Head is at least attempting to be will continue to be resigned to the DTV ghetto, where some of the best and most interesting action movies are made but never recognized because they sit alongside so much crap. Bullet in the Head is not great. It's not even very good. But I'm sad at the thought that this kind of movie will go away. I'm not ready yet.

Come on, The Tomb. There's a lot riding on you.


  1. I agree with a lot of these comments and while I have some issues with The Last Stand that movie in general seemed to work a lot better then Bullet to the Head. Bullet to the Head's biggest problem though was the script, I thought the action was shot OK but dear god the exposition on the phone and dear god the pacing, ugh. The axe fight was cool but too little too late. Also the constant narration I swear it just annoyed the hell outta me. I think The Tomb will be the one to get the people in the theatres. One other thing that they did pretty good in the film was keeping the explosions practical. Lately it seems like every big screen film has to cgi the explosions and it always looks crappy.

    1. 100% agreed on all of it. The Last Stand was a better movie, even with way too much driving and Forest Whitaker.

  2. This was my first Jason Momoa exposure. My life is better because of it.

    I also appreciate knowing how much evil goes into the development of an condo.

  3. It’s actually 0-3 for old-school action movies if you include Jason Statham’s Parker in there too. I didn’t see Parker but it sure looks like it could’ve taken place in an 80’s action flick. I thought at least that it would’ve done better since Statham is still considered a “current” action star & not “old” like Stallone & Schwarzenegger are by today’s movie audiences. I also thought that having Jennifer Lopez in the cast would've helped with the Latino audience but she made no difference at the box office.

    Forget The Tomb being the one that might determine the fate of the old school action movie genre. I’m very interested to see how A Good Day to Die Hard does. I still haven’t found an official budget for Die Hard 5, but judging by the trailers & how 20th Century Fox has been advertising & promoting it all over the place, I have to say it probably costs over $100 million. If DH5 bombs, I’ll doubt we get to see any more Bruce Willis led action blockbusters at the theaters. (Except for RED 2 out later this summer.)

    With the poor performances of The Last Stand & Bullet to the Head, I fear The Tomb may go to the DTV ghetto as well. I don’t want this type of movie to go the way of the dinosaur either, but it looks like the majority want Sci-Fi/Comic Book/Fantasy type action movies these days.

    1. I think Die Hard is going to do well, partly because the series is so popular and partly because Bruce Willis is basically still a movie star. And for some reason I'm more excited by the RED 2 trailer than I am for anything in A Good Day to Die Hard (which I will still totally see, of course).

  4. Geez, the idea that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger flopped at the box office AFTER the success of the Expendables 2 is definitely some seriously bad news. I know these movies still have a lot of respect and appeal pretty much everywhere not called America, but it's really sad to see such a fickle box office. Maybe these movies will find more love on blu-ray. I admit that I haven't seen either this movie or The Last Stand yet. I haven't been able to get to the theater, and I'd rather just buy them. Maybe there are 10 million people out there just like me...but I doubt it. I was able to walk into Best Buy on my lunch break the day that Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning came out and see that it was well stocked and at the front of the store, so I think these movies do find audiences after the theater run, but this is still bad news. I love Stallone. I want better for him, especially because to be 66 years old and to make a straight up, old school action movie like this when other people his age can't even go up a flight of stairs demands some recognition.

    I'm bummed. Also because you said it's not good.

    1. I'm probably being too hard on the movie because it just felt so mediocre coming from both Stallone and Hill. I'm sure on Blu-ray, with expectations properly managed, it will be exactly what you want it to be. But straightforward action movies do seem to be on the way out; as JK47 said above, filmmakers have to disguise them inside of other genres these days.

  5. Interesting read, Patrick. I always read, but usually don't comment on your Heavy Action column because I just feel completely out of my depth on the subject with relatively limited exposure during the 80s/90s heydays (like, no Stallone action whatsoever) and even less in the past decade or so (XXXs? Fast and the Furiouses? Bourne Whatevereses? Nope, NONE of them). I have seen embarrassingly few of the movies you've covered and almost none recently enough to have any thoughts on them.

    I think that's going to change.

    Watched all of the Lethal Weapons over the Holidays and loved them (yes, all of them). Then last Friday night I watched The Raid: Redemption and Holy Shit. I started feeling an itch for modern action. Then on Saturday I watched The Last Boy Scout. I started feeling an itch for the glory days of action. I'm not prone to snobiness so I wouldn't say I ever felt ABOVE action movies or some such nonsense, I just kinda assumed it wasn't something that interested me anymore. Boy was I wrong.

    Any suggestions on where to start? The Fast and the Furious franchise? 80's Stallone? 90's JCVD? I reckon I'll see which movies you've featured in "Heavy Action" are available on Netflix and go from there...

    I've got so much ground to cover I can't even join in your lamentations of the genre's decline - I'm just getting started!

    1. OMG TH IDK WHERE TO START. I have MANY suggestions. Do you want to see the best of the best? T2, Die Hard, Point Break, Speed, that sort of thing? Do you want to go for some extreme examples? Cobra, Action Jackson, Stone Cold, Red Scorpion? By actor? By decade? I've been working towards a "hall of fame" list since I started writing HA; maybe I'll get to it sooner than later. My best advice is to pick a couple out (maybe based on suggestions from the column -- I'll recommend Rapid Fire starring Brandon Lee) and see which threads are worth pursuing. I love Van Damme, but if I started with Kickboxer, I might not go any further just because I'm not into the "competition" action movie, and he made several of those. For other people, that's their favorite sub-genre. It just depends on what grabs you.

      I think I may have only made things worse. But I'm excited about your interest.

  6. I saw Rapid Fire when it came out and I remember really liking it at the time, so I'll put that up there too just to reinforce my new found interest in the genre with some nostalgic favourites. Kickboxer 1 and 2 (I once thought Sasha Mitchell was the shit) I actually remember liking quite a bit at the time so I'm sure they wouldn't be a turn off.

    I've probably seen most of the "best of the best" - not Point Break though, so that's high on my list - so I'm mostly looking to get out there a little bit with some of the more extreme stuff (from whatever decade) I've never seen.

    Netflix is probably the easiest way for me to get my hands on them - surprisingly the only Heavy Action headliners that are available are: Red Scorpion, Death Wish 2, XXX, Drop Zone and Sudden Death, so any other Netflix recommendations you could make would be particularly helpful - supposed to be SNOWED IN this weekend so it's a good time to go on a spree! I see The Expendables on there too but feel like I'd "get it" better with a bit more exposure to the various stars' bodies of work?

    Thanks buddy, I'm excited to have this big, relatively unexplored-by-me genre tickling my brain and I appreciate the guidance of an expert!

    P.S. Fast and the Furious 5-movie blu-ray boxset shipped from for $25 (cheaper than renting) - do it?

    1. Those are good places to start; just keep in mind that they are all enjoyable in VERY different ways. Also on Netflix (and forgive me if you've seen these) are Commando, Face/Off, The Man from Nowhere, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and Ninja (which is silly, but has Scott Adkins). There are two decent DTV Seagal movies on there (Driven to Kill and Into the Sun), but I don't suggest starting there. Those are for Advanced Studies. I'll keep looking, but make sure you report back as you watch stuff! It will help us all recommend further titles.

      Also, YES to the FatF box set. It's worth it just for Fast Five! And 2F2F is fast becoming one of the worst movies I actually really like.

    2. Cool - the only one of those I've seen is Commando and that was ages ago and I think edited for TV so definitely worth another watch. I'll add them to the list and let you know how it goes. Thanks again!

      FatF ordered!