Bullet to the Head (United States, 2013)

February 01, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bullet to the Head Poster

Bullet to the Head is a throwback to the '80s. Starring 66-year old Sylvester Stallone, who embraced his action-hero reputation during that decade and directed by Walter Hill, whose biggest hits came between 1982 and 1988, this movie offers the kind of nonstop cartoonish violence that made Stallone an icon. This is more Rambo than Rocky, with little patience for character development or narrative complexity. It's a series of fight scenes that build to a climax that is surprisingly unsatisfying in the way it ultimately plays out. Unlike Schwarzenegger's recent The Last Stand, which often had its tongue embedded in its check, Bullet to the Head plays it straight, only occasionally pausing in its grim, relentless orgy of fists, knives, axes and bullets for the obligatory one-liner.

Bullet to the Head doesn't have much of a story. It offers the familiar tale of the aging assassin who, after losing someone close, decides to get his revenge on all those responsible. Bonomo (Stallone) starts with the smallest fish and gradually works his way up the ladder to a sleazy lawyer (Christian Slater), an African war criminal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and a psycho mercenary with special ops training (Jason Momoa). It doesn't take Nostradamus to recognize that Bullet to the Head is going to end with Stallone and Momoa going one-on-one. Meanwhile, to provide a little variety, the screenplay gives Stallone a sidekick in the form of Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), an out-of-his-jurisdiction cop whose character frequently makes no sense whatsoever, and a daughter, Lisa (Sarah Shahi), who has a nude scene to justify her inclusion in the movie.

The fight scenes are filmed admirably. Stallone is in great shape. His face might show more than six decades of mileage but he's got the chiseled body of a younger warrior. One of the knocks against Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand is that a lot of what used to be muscle has gone a littleā€¦ soft. Not so for Stallone, who takes his shirt off to prove it. I don't know if he did his own stunts but, during some of the more physical altercations, there's no clear evidence of a body double although the way the scenes are edited could contribute to the illusion. Still, the question is the same here as in The Last Stand: Do audiences want to see a sixty-something action-hero?

I have to admit there's something a little refreshing about a character as no-nonsense as Bonomo, who never falters and doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger. This isn't a man who's burdened by a conscience. He never cracks a smile and the closest he comes to warmth is when he shoots a guy in the shoulder so he'll have an excuse for the cops. Stallone plays him like a Terminator. Detective Kwon feels more like an unwanted hanger-on than a necessary addition to the story. He's on hand mainly to provide short-cuts to get from one bad guy to the next. All he has to do is get on his phone, call a magic number, and feed the directions into the gps. In between, he makes small talk about arresting Bonomo because he's breaking the law.

Sung Kang is probably best known for his involvement in The Fast and the Furious franchise - he first showed up on installment #3 and has been around since. Throughout Bullet to the Head, he exists in Stallone's shadow and feels more like an afterthought than a legitimate wing man. The movie attempts to provide a variation on the "buddy movie" arrangement with the two characters never fully warming to one another, but there's such a complete lack of chemistry between Kang and Stallone that we don't believe in even a little grudging respect. The inclusion of Sarah Shahi is all about providing the bad guys with someone they can kidnap.

With a title like Bullet to the Head, one can reasonably expect a high level of graphic violence and Hill and Stallone deliver on that implied promise. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't offer much beyond that and 90 minutes of shootings and fights with almost zero tension or suspense limits the entertainment value. Revenge films are a staple of the action genre, although they don't appear to be thriving at the box office. This one confirms how thin this kind of movie can be when humanity and emotion have been replaced by a cold technical proficiency. Bullet to the Head is bloody and violent but not nearly as much fun as it should be.

Bullet to the Head (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2013-02-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1