Bullet to the Head

Posted: February 1, 2013 at 2:55 a.m.

Independent-minded Lisa Bonomo (Sarah Shahi) has an adventure with her lovable lug of a father (Sylvester Stallone) in Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head.

— You’ve got to hand at least this much to this bumbling action flick from Walter Hill: It’s not hiding behind any coy, indirect title that might lure in the unsuspecting moviegoer. You’ve pretty much got to know what you’re in for when you buy your ticket: spectacular explosions, whimsical gunplay, voluminous face-punching, and Sly Stallone’s age-defying abdominals at full flex, compressing themselves impressively into a tic-tac-toe board of muscle and determination.

Impressive torsos aside, Stallone, now 66, resembles one of those harrowing elderly models displaying the virtues of working out into your golden years. His upper body still has the sheen and pump of a much younger man, but his face has become a half-frozen, craggy mask of high mileage Hollywood living. He has been through a lot in the nearly four decades since Rocky hit the country like a right cross. Now, it appears, he’s enjoying a bit of a resurrection.

With the successful release of 2010’s The Expendables (and its subsequent sequel last year), Sly found the same aging action-hero loophole deftly exploited the past couple of decades by Clint Eastwood: You can still play the defiant, brutal assassins, moralistic hit men, and on-the-edge cops that made your career, you just have to pepper the film with enough self-referential age jokes about impending arthritis and Preparation H to make sure the audience is in on the joke with you.

Here, the film - based on the French graphic novel Du plomb dans la tete by Alexis Nolent - involves Stallone playing aging hit man Jimmy Bonomo, a paranoid, steel willed assassin based in New Orleans, whose partner (Jon Seda) gets whacked during a double-cross planned by corrupt former African politician Robert Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). On the lam, Bonomo eventually crosses paths with Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a virtuous cop from the District of Columbia down in the Crescent City to investigate the victim of Jimmy’s last hit, a retired and disgraced former cop from the district.

The mismatched pair quickly run afoul of the corrupt New Orleans police department and have to work their way up the ladder of villains to gain Jimmy’s violent brand of justice for all involved, including the giant, evil mercenary known as Keegan (Jason Momoa), directly responsible for the death of his partner.

In a way, Hill - whose previous oeuvre brought us the campy action classic, The Warriors - is working backward through his career, attempting to rekindle the spark of mismatched buddy flicks he first ignited in 48 Hrs. with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy as his bickering leading men. Unfortunately, Kang has exactly none of Murphy’s high-revving energy and charisma, and pairing him with the always leaden Stallone just makes their scenes together particularly painful.

Idiotic beyond belief, the film operates in a hazy world of barely understood police procedures, ridiculous fight sequences and long, running jokes about Kwon’s ancestry (in the course of the film he is referred to as Kato, Confucius and Oddjob among other things, a string of desultory insults that the blitheringly incompetent Kwon seems to take in miserable stride). Indeed, most of the supposed humor of the film is at Kwon’s expense, including the last shootout wherein he is forced to endure a final indignity at the hands of his supposed partner.

Throughout the action, the otherwise ineffectual Kwon’s singular and only valuable contribution is using his ubiquitous BlackBerry (“I can’t do my job without it!”) to pepper his home office with requests for quick perpetrator record checks. In keeping with the film’s string of implausibilities, the speed and constancy with which they reply to him would suggest perhaps the single most efficient and organized police unit in the country.

Stallone, for his part, handles the numerous action scenes with a veteran swagger, but his top-heavy body appears to be getting a bit rickety. With his bulging arms pulled back, his still large chest thrown in front of him like a beauty pageant contestant, he appears like a man with serious lumbar issues. During one climactic fight involving a pair of axes (please don’t ask), you worry less about him getting his head cleaved in half than his having to bend over to pick up the weapon in the first place.

Enhancing the obvious limitations of the film’s leading men, the clunky screenplay, by Alessandro Camon, doesn’t give them much to play off of, with a plot so facile and senseless, it shouldn’t have even bothered propelling itself forward with its steady stream of expository dialogue (“Right, it needs to look like a break-in!” Stallone’s partner affirms during the aftermath of an early hit; “I've paid a congressman off for a big government contract!” Morel proudly boasts, and so forth).

So what we have here is the quintessential big studio release in the cinematic junkyard known as February. A property so poorly conceived and executed, it would have been better off going straight to the discount DVD bin. Coming full circle, the film’s blunt title might also be suggestive in another fashion: About the only way you could really enjoy a piece of lazy, hackneyed claptrap like this is with severe brain damage.

Bullet to the Head 75 Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jon Seda, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Sarah Shahi, Christian Slater, Jason Momoa Director: Walter Hill Rating: R, for strong violence, bloody images, language, some nudity and brief drug use Running time: 91 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 02/01/2013