To paraphrase the man himself, he had me at “fuck you.”
Even after all these years, Sylvester Stallone remains something of an acquired taste. You have to feel his vibe to get past the less-than-stellar acting, the frequent caves to vanity, and the fact he’s now well into his sixties while still playing the same basic tough-guy parts. Bullet to the Head swaggers past all that with pure charisma… boosted by some potent hard-boiled dialogue and solid directing from fellow Hollywood veteran Walter Hill. It hearkens back to the muscular 80s crime sagas that Hill specialized in, slightly updated for the 21st century but still carrying a mean bite.
And legions of long-time critics aside, it wouldn’t work without Stallone. Who else can make us root for an amoral hitman named Bobo? Who else can sell us on an axe fight with Jason Momoa – thirty years his junior and built like a cement truck? Who else can beat Christian Slater to a pulp and look like a fun guy instead the shameless defiler of an entire generation? Bullet to the Head definitely qualifies as a guilty pleasure, but if you can’t enjoy the guilty ones, you’ve missed the whole point of Stallone’s career.
Here, he does indeed play James “Bobo” Bonomo, a New Orleans assassin who runs afoul of his bosses after… well, after doing his job. The bad guys don’t like loose ends and once he shoots their target for them (sparing the hooker in the shower because that’s just how he rolls), they send an even bigger, scarier guy (Momoa) to settle his hash. This, of course, beggars the question why they didn’t just send the bigger, scarier guy instead of Bobo in the first place, but never mind. Our Hero soon gets some help from a Washington, DC cop (Sung Kang), here to investigate the death of a former colleague at Bobo’s hands. They don’t quite hit the magic chemistry that Murphy and Nolte did – mostly because Stallone has the upper hand most of the time – but they do all right for themselves as they shoot their way through the local underworld.
Hill, old pro that he is, knows how to deliver enough twists and turns while keeping the basic thrust straightforward. The screenplay from Alessandro Camon gives most of the choice one-liners to the star, but they pack a real punch for those so inclined. The R rating lets Hill take the gloves off, delivering the kind of lean, gritty crime thriller we don’t see much of these days. Films like this are only as good as their bad guys, of course, and Momoa fits the bill nicely. After stumbling badly in the Conan remake, he bounces back here with a menacing glower and just the right twinkle in his eye: the perfect foil for Stallone and the only guy onscreen who can really match him. Here’s hoping he can score more roles like this in the future.
Of course Bullet to the Head takes itself too seriously too often for comfort, and its alpha dog swagger grates on the nerves from time to time. But again, that’s always been part and parcel of its star’s appeal, and this old-school throwback wouldn’t be the same if it softened those edges. Action movies have undergone drastic changes in the last few years, and restarting those ubermensch glory-fests upon which Stallone made his name would be a big mistake. An earthier crime saga like this one, on the other hand, feels timeless: playing with pertinent notions of real-world compromise and hard edges that cut hero and villain alike. Its ridiculous elements never detract from that fundamental appeal, and even the over-the-top climax constitutes the right sort of cheese. Stallone’s star has waxed and waned over the years, but his appeal remains intact. All he needs is the right vehicle… something Bullet to the Head is more than happy to provide.