When his partner is killed, Jimmy Bobo (Stallone), a Louisiana hitman, joins up with a by-the-book police officer Taylor Kwon (Kang) who is investigating the death of his own partner. Together they set out for vengeance, uncovering police corruption and hunting down a ruthless mercenary (Momoa) who’s out to kill them both.
Considering the action pedigree of Bullet to the Head — Sylvester Stallone looking great at 66, Walter Hill (Deadwood, The Warriors) at the wheel and producer Joel Silver (Commando, The Matrix) riding shotgun — the audience can expect a little more from this action film than a mindless gun slinger. The opening sequence promises as much: a stylish grunginess greets the audience. Throughout the film there’s a satisfying grimy-New Orleans feel with an icy-cool soundtrack that you’d find happily playing in a bar deep in Louisiana swamp-land.
As you’d expect from the synopsis, this is your typical action narrative. All the clichés are there (the partner killed, the awkward ‘buddy’ dynamic, more topless women than a Game of Thrones episode), so connoisseurs of Stallone films will not be disappointed. Yet we find that many of the action sequences have superfluous shots clearly intended just to build mood and atmosphere, with the director’s more creative side shining through. These layers have a darkly luxurious feel to them, complementing the violent action with John Moore-esque style.
Each character has a sense of personality: while Jimmy Bobo develops next to nothing throughout the film, his charisma goes the distance. Kang’s character does the exact opposite, progressing as he faces an ever more hostile world but severely lacking in any depth. Momoa’s ruthless killer, ‘Keegan’, has motivation and legible values that similar villains lack.
Despite the very pleasing style and personalities, as with many films in this genre, there are moments of blatant derivation. For example, the two hit-men chatting about inconsequential matters before a ‘job’ in their car, then stating “let’s get to work” is an almost direct lift from Pulp Fiction. Stallone’s one-liners feel a little too much like Snatch’s ‘Turkish’ to be a coincidence. The ‘borrowing’ of personality from Guy Richie’s slick gangster flick does bestow opportunities for witty dialogue that you wouldn’t expect from a Sly actioner, however. Shots of Jimmy Bobo alone, chuckling to himself reading a newspaper as his partner has bullets pulled from his shoulder in the next room, are a nice touch.
This is one aspect of the delightful silliness which pervades the droll action. We get to see Sly in masquerade, Christian Slater playing the weasely scumbag lawyer he was born to portray, and a marvelously camp villain in Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. The humour never imposes on the action and other more serious developments. The film finds its shortcomings elsewhere…
As each set piece unfolds the style and edge that was once pleasing dissolves and loses its efficacy. All the predictable elements come rushing in as we reach the climax: a scruffy free-for-all with everybody shooting everybody else. A gun-fight sequence is transplanted in from what could be any other action film you can imagine, undermining all the hard work done earlier to create a unique style and feel. The final boss fight is reminiscent of Commando’s showdown between Matrix and Bennett – but this time with fire-axes – although nowhere near as fun. By this point however, you are long since caring what’s going on.
It’s sad to see something which began with so many promises and such a stylish first act diminish to one massively disappointing ending. The final scene (and accompanying dialogue) is the dictionary definition of ‘mediocre’.
Overall Verdict: The story is old, but (initially) the execution is fresh. As an homage to 80s action flicks, Bullet to the Head does the job: not taking itself too seriously allowing the audience to step back and enjoy what’s happening on screen with little bothering of their grey matter. Essentially, it is a standard Stallone action film, but an opportunity for something more was badly wasted. However, for a Friday night with the guys, some beers and pizza, it’s more than a suitable companion.
Reviewer: Adrian Naik