Friday, February 1, 2013

In Theaters: BULLET TO THE HEAD (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Walter Hill.  Written by Alessandro Camon.  Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Holt McCallany, Brian Van Holt, Weronika Rosati, Dane Rhodes. (R, 99 mins)

It's been eleven years since the words "A Walter Hill Film" appeared on the big screen in a new theatrical release, and the lean, mean, bone-cracking, head-splattering BULLET TO THE HEAD finds the man still in fine form.  Hill first gained notoriety as a screenwriter, scripting Sam Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY (1972) among others before making his directing debut with the Depression-era bare-knuckle brawling classic HARD TIMES (1975).  Numerous box-office hits and enduring movies-for-guys favorites followed: THE DRIVER (1978), THE WARRIORS (1979), THE LONG RIDERS (1980), SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981), 48 HRS (1982), STREETS OF FIRE (1984), EXTREME PREJUDICE (1987), RED HEAT (1988), JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989), ANOTHER 48 HRS (1990), TRESPASS (1992), GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993), WILD BILL (1995), LAST MAN STANDING (1997), and UNDISPUTED (2002).  He co-produced the ALIEN films and the HBO series DEADWOOD, and also directed the cable TV mini-series BROKEN TRAIL (2006).  He's been away for some time, and despite talk of behind-the-scenes friction with star Sylvester Stallone and a release date that was delayed multiple times (this was shot two years ago, and was completed before Stallone made THE EXPENDABLES 2), BULLET TO THE HEAD fits perfectly into the mold of what one expects from A Walter Hill Film, though it's hard telling if there's much mainstream multiplex interest in an action film starring a 66-year-old Stallone being directed by a 72-year-old Hill.  This match-up really isn't that much different from all of those late '80s Cannon action movies starring a pushing-70-year-old Charles Bronson being directed by 75-year-old J. Lee Thompson.  Stallone and Hill are older and obviously past their heyday, but they still have it.  But after the catastrophic tanking of Arnold Schwarzenegger's THE LAST STAND, does anyone under the age of 40 really care?  And will everyone over the age of 40 just wait for DVD/Blu-ray or VOD?  It's as much of a question of an aging star's bankability as it is the changing landscape of film distribution.

Like the recent string of geriatric actioners in the wake of THE EXPENDABLES, BULLET TO THE HEAD is an instance of formulaic convention working to the film's advantage.  When I say that it feels like it could've been made 25 years ago with few changes (cell phones, digital visual effects, Stallone's hair plugs), it's meant as a compliment.  From the mismatched heroes to the smartass one-liners and racial stereotyping played for laughs to the abducted loved one all the way to the showdown at an abandoned factory, BULLET TO THE HEAD leaves no cliche untouched.  It knows it's junk and has a good time with it.  Is it up there with Hill's best work?  No, but it's a nicely-done, highly entertaining nostalgia trip for fans of Hill, Stallone, and days gone by. And honestly, neither of these guys are interested in reinventing themselves at this point in their careers. 

Stallone is James Bonomo, aka Jimmy Bobo, a New Orleans-based hit man and career criminal.  Bobo and his associate Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) are hired to whack Greely (Holt McCallany), a dirty ex-cop from D.C.  Two hours after the job, Blanchard is killed and Bobo attacked by hulking ex-mercenary Keegan (Jason Momoa of GAME OF THRONES), who's been hired to off Bobo and Blanchard by the same guy who commissioned them to kill Greely.  Bobo reluctantly forms an unholy alliance with visiting D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang of the FAST AND THE FURIOUS films), who's investigating Greely's murder against the wishes of the obviously corrupt local cops.  Bobo and Kwon (which almost has the same ring as TANGO & CASH) have to set aside their differences as criminal and cop to work together to bring down the bad guys...if they don't kill each other first!

The man responsible is land developer and Nigerian crime kingpin Robert Nkomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who's trying to (what else?) knock down slum housing to build expensive properties.  Bobo and Kwon get a flash drive from Morel's sleazy lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater, sixth-billed and not even granted the dignity of an "and Christian Slater" credit) that details all of the local cops, politicians, and assorted big shots in Morel's pocket.  And, in a turn of events that should surprise no one, Morel and Keegan have Lisa (Sarah Shahi), Bobo's tattoo-artist daughter.

To the abandoned factory for an axe fight!

Stallone and Kang make a good team, engaging in plenty of sarcastic and politically incorrect ballbusting (usually involving Bobo calling Kwon "Confucius" or "Oddjob" and telling him to "go read your tea leaves" or bitching about how Asians can't drive), and the seemingly gargantuan Momoa (who was effectively cast in the otherwise forgettable CONAN THE BARBARIAN remake in 2011) is a memorably imposing villain.  While BULLET TO THE HEAD is essentially a Stallone vehicle, it's also distinctly Hill's.  From the constant bantering (not quite on the level of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy's back-and-forth in 48 HRS) to the bluesy, guitar-driven, Ry Cooder-esque score by Steve Mazzaro, to the intense action sequences, BULLET TO THE HEAD (based on the French graphic novel Du Plomb dans la Tete) frequently feels like a Walter Hill greatest hits package, and while it breaks no new ground, it's a nice thing to see in 2013.

Walter Hill directing Stallone

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