The Film: 3/5
Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) is an independent contract killer who works out of New Orleans with his partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda). One particular job has them gunning down a scumbag named Greely (Holt McCallany) in a fancy hotel room, but Jimmy refuses to execute the Russian prostitute who had been taking a shower at the time and thus leaves a witness behind to identify them to the police. Later that night Jimmy and Louis are enjoying some down time at a local bar and when Jimmy goes to use the restroom Louis is stabbed to death by Keegan (Jason Momoa), a vicious mercenary who also tries to kill Jimmy but fails. The murder of Greely brings D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) to town as Greely was a crooked cop and Kwon's ex-partner. Kwon realizes that Greely was likely killed by Bobo and Blanchard because he had stolen crucial evidence that could implicate businessman Robert Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in a series of illegal pay-offs as part of his grand scheme to replace local housing projects with overpriced condominiums. Realizing that Bobo will probably be out for payback against the men that killed his partner Kwon approaches the hit man and proposes an alliance, which Bobo reluctantly agrees to despite his deep distrust of cops. Once the two are on the case Morel, his sleazy lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater), and Keegan will stop at nothing to kill Jimmy and Taylor and protect their illicit activities. They even resort to kidnapping Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi) in order to gain leverage, but that only succeeds in pissing this world-weary assassin off big time.
I had mixed feelings when it was announced that Walter Hill, the legendary director of period and modern day westerns and one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, was taking the helm of Sylvester Stallone’s next movie after original director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) departed the production over creative differences with the project’s star. For the past decade Hill has worked mainly in television, directing the pilot episode of the HBO series Deadwood and the two-part AMC western miniseries Broken Trail. He had made several films throughout the 90’s like Trespass, Geronimo: An American Legend, and Last Man Standing, but none of them made enough money to justify their sizable budgets. Once respected by the Hollywood establishment, Hill battled with executives at MGM over the direction and edit of his sci-fi thriller Supernova to the point where he took his name off the released version that far from resembled his intended cut and was instead credited as “Thomas Lee”.
Up until Bullet to the Head was released to theaters this past winter without much fanfare and faded from memory even more quickly than it came a new Walter Hill movie had not seen the light of the silver screen since 2002’s prison boxing drama Undisputed. Stallone, another action god of the 70’s and 80’s who had seen his career take several near-devastating hits in the 90’s, was on the career comeback of a lifetime with smash hits like Rocky Balboa, Rambo, and the Expendables series (a third entry of which is in the works for next summer) and was the only member of the Planet Hollywood trifecta that Hill had yet to make a movie with (Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in 1988’s Red Heat, Bruce Willis in the aforementioned Last Man Standing). The director was known for getting great performances from the most unexpected performers - hell, the man helped make Eddie Murphy a movie star - and even his box office failures like Streets of Fire and his Brewster’s Millions remake with Richard Pryor and John Candy were vastly more entertaining than most directors were capable of delivering.
Bullet to the Head cost $55 million and didn’t come close to making a quarter of that amount back at the box office, but its bombing was inevitable when you consider that it was dumped into theaters in the dead of winter with little fanfare from the studio that financed it. Schwarzenegger’s attempt at a comeback vehicle, The Last Stand, also flopped but at least it had a stronger marketing campaign. Based on a French graphic novel, Bullet was adapted for the screen by Alessandro Camon (The Messenger) with uncredited assists from Hill and Stallone. On the surface it attempts to be a buddy action flick that Hill typically excels at but in reality it’s a lean and well-crafted star vehicle for Stallone, who may be pushing 70 but still looks and acts every bit the towering presence he was birthed into being. During one intense fight scene in a bathroom with double-crossing redneck Ronnie Earl (Brian Van Holt) Stallone gets to show off his character’s tattooed, muscular frame. Shirtless, Jimmy bears a striking resemblance to Crying Freeman. If such a thing was possible, Stallone seems to have stripped away some of the excess body fat stored away during the decade preceding the release of Rocky Balboa. He also gets most of the script’s most quotable dialogue, which he intones like cynicism is his first language.
The success of Hill’s first buddy movie 48 Hrs. was due to the priceless chemistry between its stars Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. Both actors were equally talented in their fields and had a convincing interplay that defied convention. By the end you could understand why their characters became friends in the end. The central relationship in Bullet to the Head doesn’t have quite the same impact; as I mentioned before, this is less a buddy movie and more of a showcase for Sylvester Stallone’s particular skill set. Thomas Jane was originally cast as the police detective who becomes Bobo’s unlikely partner, but apparently producer Joel Silver felt that making the character more ethnic would help the movie reach a wider audience. This mistake proved to be almost fatal to the project because Jane is a adept actor with the kind of macho screen presence a director like Hill could have a field day exploiting (imagine if he had made The Punisher instead of Jonathan Hensleigh), and he would have made a much better match for Stallone than the actor they ultimately went with - Sung Kang of the Fast and the Furious movies. Kang does fine as Taylor Kwon and his chemistry with Stallone is serviceable, but the character is too much of a naive goody-goody wet nap who you’d wish would just stay completely out of Jimmy’s way so the badass hit man could do his thing. You never once believe that Kwon could handle himself in this world despite his profession or even carry the movie when Stallone is off-screen. Thomas Jane should never have been fired. Damn you Joel Silver.
Bullet to the Head’s visual style is rather flat, like cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II was going for the feel of a television pilot. Since Ahern has worked mainly in television in recent years - though he has served as director of photography on every Hill project since Trespass, including the Deadwood pilot - this doesn’t seem at all surprising. Nothing in the movie’s look calls attention to itself which works towards keeping the focus on the acting and plot, but still some of Hill’s trademark dazzle would have made this a more memorable feature. At least the scenes contain some decent mood lighting. There were a few too many CGI bullet hits and blood splashes though. I figured Hill was beyond that sort of painfully obvious digital trickery, but maybe it’s a lot harder for him to get a movie made these days than anyone could have suspected. It just rankled my nerves to see that pixilated crap being used at all. How hard or expensive is it to use real stage blood these days? Steve Mazzaro’s bluesy music score recalls the finest musical contributions to the filmography of Walter Hill by his longtime collaborator Ry Cooder. It makes a good atmosphere enhancer though none of the cues ever stand out. Think of it as meat tenderizer for the ears.
I can’t quite get over the sight of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje not getting in on the action. His villain is more of an ineffectual power monger who couldn’t survive without his hired guns and political and legal protection. To sell the image of Morel as a weakling the filmmakers gave him a handicap and a cane. Casting Adewale in the role is an interesting choice and he makes a perfectly adequate dickhead baddie. Christian Slater also gets his share of funny lines as Morel’s lawyer Marcus, but it is Jason Momoa who takes home the Most Valuable Player award with a commanding presence that threatens to take the movie away from Stallone. His brutal but effective mercenary Keegan is the perfect guy to go up against Jimmy Bobo in the finale and Hill and Camon do a fine job establishing his character as a real threat. He is even given greater dimensions that the characters played by Adewale and Slater; Keegan clearly has a moral code not too dissimilar from Bobo’s and could almost be seen as the hero’s darker polar opposite. Both men are trained professional killers who don’t mess around and will take any and every precaution to achieve their objective. It also helps that Momoa is pretty freakin’ huge and owns a room the very moment he walks in. When he and Stallone battle at the end with axes the music drops out and the two engage in a masterful dance of death. It’s a better end fight than the one Stallone had with Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Expendables 2. Sarah Shahi is a very beautiful and credible actress and she makes an excellent verbal sparring partner for both Stallone and Kang.
Even if Hill never makes another movie, Bullet to the Head seems more of a fitting conclusion to his directing career than Undisputed. Setting the action in New Orleans and treating that city with love and respect for its scenic majesty and vibrant local color and not as a mere filming location makes Bullet a spiritual descendant of Hill’s debut feature Hard Times. Both films also starred legendary action heroes with iconic visages who were often written off by critics and movie snobs for their perceived lack of acting skill but could still surprise us with their subtle and soulful performances. And those fight scenes pack a visual and aural wallop that do more than bruise your ego.
Given its unobtrusive cinematography it’s not at all strange that Bullet to the Head doesn’t exactly explode on Blu-ray. Warner’s 1080p high-definition presentation of the film in its original 1.85: 1 theatrical widescreen aspect ratio looks solid with sharpened picture detail and slightly muted colors. Grain is apparent but practically non-existent. The movie was photographed in Panavision on 35mm film and the results are notable. The studio has also provided Bullet with a hard-hitting English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that features strong volume control for the music and dialogue with no audio distortion. The sound effects in the action sequences might just rattle your speakers, and that’s just the punches. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Outside of an upfront preview for Gangster Squad the only extra feature is the brief featurette “Bullet to the Head: Mayhem Inc.” (9 minutes) which is little more than an extended commercial for the movie with some halfway decent cast and crew interviews thrown into the mix. Director Hill also gets to share some of his intentions for the movie in microscopic snippets in between fight rehearsal footage and fawning statements from the other interviewees. Not bad, but I could have done with a more substantial documentary.
Also included is a DVD copy with a standard definition presentation of Bullet to the Head and a code to access an Ultraviolet digital copy of the movie online.
The long-awaited teaming of Sylvester Stallone and Walter Hill was dumped into theaters during a season when no one in their right mind would want to go see a sweaty B-action flick, and its premiere on Blu-ray isn’t given much respect either. Still I would recommend fans of old school action movies check out Bullet to the Head as a rental or when it drops in price. A damn fine transfer isn’t enough to warrant paying almost $40 for a disc with little else but a cool movie as selling points.