This weekend, the skull-shredding new Sylvester Stallone opus, "Bullet to the Head," explodes across theaters nationwide. A mismatched buddy movie that also happens to be incredibly violent, it pairs Sly (as a troubled hitman) with "Fast and the Furious" franchise breakout Sung Kang (as a troubled policeman) as they track down gangsters and crooked cops...or something. The plot is pretty minimal and what's there is sort of incomprehensible. But it's not about plot anyway, it's about breaking people's faces open.
After the failure of "The Last Stand" earlier this month, which starred fellow old-timer action star Arnold Schwarzenegger (Planet Hollywood compatriots Sly and Arnold were recently paired in the disappointing "Expendables 2," playing wrinkled dudes who fire machine guns), will "Bullet to the Head" suffer a similar fate? Above-average genre filmmakers were responsible for both projects (South Korean director Kim Jee-woon did "The Last Stand" and American action auteur Walter Hill tackled "Bullet to the Head") and both seem like movies that narrowly escaped premiering on home video.
So is "Bullet to the Head" worth checking out, if only for some blood-splattered exploitation? Or is it better skipped altogether? Read on to find out!
PRO: It Is What It Is
"Bullet in the Head" is one thing, above all else, and that is… "Bullet in the Head." The opening seconds of the movie are the studio logos getting obliterated by a bullet that zooms toward the screen. This is a pretty apt prologue to the movie you're about the see, which is more or less a grade-Z action film that, if you were tuckered out and came across on premium cable one night, would probably hold your attention until you fell asleep. Sly is an assassin whose partner is double-crossed after a job, forcing him to team up with a detective to take down those responsible. The movie is beyond linear, with the two mismatched dudes (who totally don't get along!) interrogating various underworld types and then killing them in explosively violent ways. It's not exactly challenging but it isn't boring either -- it's a balls-to-the-walls, rip-your-freaking-throat-out action movie that promises something and totally delivers on that promise.
CON: You Can Tell Someone Tampered With It After The Fact
For all that's good about "Bullet to the Head" -- and, amazingly, there is a lot -- there is an equal amount of annoying stuff. Most of this had to do with the fact that the movie had an infamously troubled production history, with original costar Thomas Jane suggesting a replacement for the original director (Wayne Kramer, who directed the Oscar-nominated "The Cooler") in Walter Hill, who has crafted such genre classics as "The Warriors" and "Southern Comfort." When Hill became attached, he and producer Joel Silver promptly fired Jane, insisting on Sung Kang for the role because the movie needed more international appeal. Filming ended in the spring of 2011, with the release date indefinitely delayed, at which point Hill's original cut was reconfigured without his approval. This would be all okay if the Frankenstein's monster that is this movie didn't show its seams, but oh baby does it ever, particularly in some clunky neo-noir-ish voiceover, painfully bad Photoshop work and transitional sequences that wouldn’t be out of place on one of the "CSI" shows. All of this suggests someone other than Hill -- who is known for stylistic flourishes but a pretty standardized editorial approach -- had a hand in this thing.
PRO: Sylvester Stallone is in Fine Form
Stallone is just Stallone here. Some of his lines of dialogue are so absurd that you imagine the screenwriter (Alessandro Camon, who co-wrote "The Messenger") just coming up with stuff that he thought would be funny if Sly was the one saying it -- things like "I don't have a problem with cats, I just don't like dander" or "Give him a band aid and a Blow Pop." Also, for all his gnarled looks and barely comprehensible speaking voice, Stallone is in full-on movie star role here, reminding you of a time when a movie could be a blockbuster if it just included his last name on the poster. This role harkens back to things like the original "Death Race 2000," when you could tell that one day this dude would rule the world. Oh, and Sly's character's name is Jimmy BoBo. Yes, you read that correctly.
CON: Everybody Else is Kind of Bland
For all of Stallone's nostalgic mega-watt oomph, the rest of the cast kind of suffers. While Sung Kang is pretty great as Sly's foil, people like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka “Lost’’s Mr. Eko) as a villainous crime boss and Christian Slater as a slimy lawyer, fail to add much spark. Even Jason Momoa, out of Westeros but still rocking a lot of hair, doesn't do a whole lot as the crazed killer who knifes Sly's partner (played by one of the dudes from "Treme"). It would have been nice to see the more colorful Walter Hill regulars occupy the roles of the various supporting goons.
PRO: It Was Shot in New Orleans and They Don't Pretend it's Anywhere Else
Thanks to lucrative tax incentives, a number of major movies have been filming in New Orleans and surrounding areas in Louisiana (the list is literally endless). The problem with most of these movies is that they're trying to pass off the area as somewhere else (Kansas City in "Looper," Texas in "Killer Joe," even New York City in "Broken City"). However, "Bullet in the Head" is proudly set in New Orleans and it's refreshing. Like the rest of the movie, it's very honest and forthcoming with its crumminess.
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5: "Extreme Prejudice" (1987)
One of the great lost Walter Hill classics, this hardboiled neo-western, starring Hill regular Nick Nolte as a morally conflicted Texas Ranger, was originally slated to be directed by John Milius (who also co-wrote the script) more than a decade earlier. However, it's hard to imagine anyone but Hill directing this movie, which concerns a Texas border town being overrun by drugs (and invaded by a mysterious military "zombie unit" full of special forces guys supposedly killed in duty). The cast of tough guys is also exceedingly impressive, with Powers Boothe getting to snarl up a storm as Nolte's former BFF turned drug kingpin mortal enemy, and a number of notable character actors filling out the ranks of the zombie unit (among them Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown and an electric William Forsythe). Unrelentingly violent and bleak, even by Hill's admittedly loose standards, "Extreme Prejudice" never really found the audience, but it's due for rediscovery -- there's so much to appreciate, from Jerry Goldsmith's moody score, to Maria Conchita Alonso's boobs, to the epic climactic shootout.
4. "48 Hrs" (1982)
It's easy to forget how groundbreaking "48 Hrs" really was. It pretty much invented the "buddy cop" genre, which would be endlessly replicated for decades. The plot of "48 Hrs" is ridiculously straightforward -- a cop (frequent Hill confederate Nick Nolte) is on the hunt for some vicious thugs and so he decides to release one of the thugs' former gang members (Eddie Murphy) from prison for… (wait for it)… 48 hours. That's literally the entire plot. Thankfully, Hill cast two ridiculously talented actors in the lead roles (parts that were originally being eyeballed by Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor), who brought so much more to the characters. Unlike many of the movies that came afterward, in which two mismatched characters are forced to become partners, you really get the sensation that these two guys cannot stand each other. It gives the movie a dangerous kind of edge that makes it really fun to watch. "48 Hrs" would remain Hill's biggest financial success… until "Another 48 Hrs."
3. "Southern Comfort" (1981)
Easily Hill's most uncomfortably intense movie, "Southern Comfort" concerns a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen, right after Vietnam, who are set to conduct training maneuvers in the marshy bayou. But while conducting their business, they decide to steal a couple of boats from some local Cajun furriers and, after one of them decides to prank the locals by firing blanks at them, things go straight to hell. The rest of the movie is a nightmarish descent into madness, which Hill conducts in a way that borders on the hallucinogenic. Terrific tough-guy character actors (among them David Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward and Peter Coyote) play the beleaguered Guardsmen and the movie, as it ratchets up the atmospheric intensity, also becomes weirder and more hyper-violent.
2. "Streets of Fire" (1984)
Bizarre to an almost off-putting degree, "Streets of Fire" was a gonzo action movie musical that pitted rival gangs against one another in a psychedelic city where the aesthetics of the '50s and the '80s created a singular, neon-strewn, highly romantic atmosphere. As a filmmaker, Hill isn't capable of being overtly "clever;" almost everything he does is terribly earnest. So when he sets out to do something like "Streets of Fire," which is inspired in equal part by comic books, ancient archetypes, rock n' roll records, and music videos, there isn't a wink or a nudge in the entire enterprise. It's almost completely (and shockingly) straight-faced, which is what makes it so powerful. "Streets of Fire" is unlike anything you've ever seen before (or since).
1. "The Warriors" (1979)
Kaleidoscopic and comic book-y, Hill's 1979 gangland epic "The Warriors" remains his towering achievement. Based on the novel by Sol Yurick, "The Warriors" concerns the titular gang, as they race through Manhattan, furiously trying to return to Coney Island after being framed for murder. All of the other gangs in New York are after them, and they have to use their wits and encyclopedic knowledge of the subway system to say ahead. Part of what makes "The Warriors" so fun is getting to see what New York looked like back in 1979, when things were really skuzzy and dangerous. Unfortunately, "The Warriors" has the rare distinction of being both Hill's best and worst film. When the movie was re-released on DVD, Hill went back and tampered with it, putting in cheesy "comic book transitions" and underlining the Greek origins. It utterly ruins the mood and atmosphere of the movie and might be the single most destructive director's cut since "Star Wars."