By Shane M. Dallmann
Well, we’ll see how the new DIE HARD does, but it seems that action films are on the “outs” in this country these days whether they’re “old school” or not, if THE LAST STAND and PARKER are any indication, and I’ll be the first to admit that the timing was NOT right on these shores for a movie named BULLET TO THE HEAD. But just to clarify, this is NOT a remake of John Woo’s BULLET IN THE HEAD: it’s an adaptation of a French graphic novel, and it’s a most satisfying throwback for both fans of Sylvester Stallone and director Walter Hill.
Stallone is James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonamo, a New Orleans hitman who manages to survive a “no loose ends” rubout attempt at the end of his latest mission. His partner doesn’t. Washington D.C. cop Taylor Kwon (Sun Kang of the FAST & FURIOUS series) has an interest in the case and attempts to acquire Jimmy’s cooperation. Jimmy wants nothing to do with a cop, but subsequent events demonstrate that working together would, indeed, be in their mutual best interest.
Hill is back in his comfortable 1980s action mode: the bayou setting allows him to indulge in some lively Cajun music, while the mismatched partners invite comparisons to 48 HRS, but BULLET TO THE HEAD plays significantly differently (neither protagonist gets to be “the funny one,” for instance). Kwon’s the one with the smartphone and the police computer that makes it easy for the duo to climb the conspiracy ladder, and Jimmy’s the one that can’t be bothered to take a suspect “downtown” but who also proves invaluable when it comes to saving Kwon’s bacon.
Interestingly, Jimmy’s stereotypical Asian putdowns at Kwon’s expense continue as a theme throughout, but the films seems to have downplayed Kwon’s retaliatory “old” wisecracks (the line “Can we listen to something from this century?,” heard in every trailer and TV spot, does NOT appear in the film as released)–but that’s not terribly surprising, as Stallone essentially DARES you to make fun of his age. Mug shots of Stallone’s much younger self are defiantly displayed, and Jimmy’s got a grown daughter (Sarah Shahi is most appealing in the role, despite the fact that she exists almost exclusively as an excuse for an eleventh-hour crisis), but Stallone carries his fight/action scenes as convincingly as ever (would YOU let him take a swing at you?), particularly in a bathhouse brawl that recalls Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES but for the fact that the antagonists get to keep their pants on in this case.
BULLET TO THE HEAD also benefits from a terrific supporting cast of villains: Christian Slater has one of his most entertaining turns in a while as the wealthy weasel Baptiste; while Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko from LOST) shines as an oily African fugitive (with a streak of Ayn Rand in his philosophy) at the top of the criminal food chain. Of course, he’s so polite and straightforward (one of the most surprising moments in the film involves his actually keeping his part of a suspenseful bargain) that you can’t imagine for a moment that he’ll be involved in the big finish: everyone’s going to be waiting for Stallone to square off with fire axes against Jason Momoa (the new CONAN is top-drawer as the nemesis who actually “did it”).
The reluctant buddy formula still works, Stallone still works, Hill still works, and Sung Kang more than holds his own throughout without any phony, back-slapping BFF resolution in his playbook, making BULLET TO THE HEAD as satisfying as anyone could hope.