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Bullet to the Head (2013)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jason Momoa

Written By: Alessandro Camon, Alexis Nolent (graphic novel) Directed By: Walter Hill

The Short Version

Sly Stallone is back on the big screen as a badass hitman.

On the one hand, Bullet to the Head is the fun actioner you’re expecting…

But on the other hand, it’s not, and that surprise makes it even better.

Walter Hill’s steady hand in the Director’s Chair keeps things hot and moving.

For old school action fans, Bullet to the Head is must-enjoy moviegoing.

The Long Version

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Enjoy that tasty, cheesy goodness.

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The booze of choice for the discriminating hitman, even if he has to bring his own bottle to the bar.

“You had me at ‘fuck you’.”

One could watch the trailer for Bullet to the Head and legitimately expect an “unlikely buddy” action flick made in violent old school fashion, headlined by a Sly Stallone who looks and sounds like he’s gone right back to being at the top of his game and recaptured the spirit of the Golden Age of Action Movies.

With the exception of a single word, that is in fact a completely accurate assessment of how Bullet in the Head turns out.  At the risk of spoiling things, the one inaccurate word to be found in that opening statement is “buddy.”  The film’s leading hitman and the supporting out-of-town cop may indeed end up working together as de facto partners, but they are never, ever buddies.

And that, my friends, makes this movie even better.

The premise is simple enough.  New Orleans hitman James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables 2) and his partner are sent to take out a mark.  After the job is done, they get double crossed, and Jimmy’s partner winds up dead.  Needless to say, Jimmy wants some payback.

As it so happens, the guy Jimmy had been sent to kill was a corrupt cop from Washington, DC, and that cop’s ex-partner, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang, Fast & Furious), has just landed in New Orleans.  He doesn’t care about the trigger man who killed his partner; he wants the people who ordered the hit, and he wants the evidence that his ex-partner had about a corruption scheme.

Think maybe the hitman and the cop can find a way to work together against common foes without killing each other in the process?  Despite the “buddy” formula audiences have come to expect, in this case, that’s a damn tall order that’s going to be a lot harder to fill than anyone thinks…

And, as noted, that’s what takes Bullet to the Head to the next level for those who appreciate Golden Age style action.

But let’s start with what savvy fans were expecting.  First and foremost, Sly Stallone really is back with a vengeance.  All of the charisma, all of the badassery, all of the deadpan humor, and yes, the fact that the man can actually act on top of everything else – all of the great stuff that made Stallone a legend back during the Golden Age of Action Movies, he brings back to the table in Bullet to the Head.  If anything, his age only adds to the potency of the mix, with the end result being an utterly badass, totally believable, and undeniably deadly character who owns the screen whenever he’s on it (which is most of the time).  Stallone still looks great during the action sequences, and even when he’s standing still, he brings an intensity that feels like action.  Oh yes, my friends, the allegedly old man has still got it.

All of the “it” that Stallone brings to the screen is enhanced by the direction of Walter Hill, one of the truly great behind-the-scenes talents in the realm of things that go “boom.”  No, Bullet to the Head doesn’t quite hit the balls to the walls intensity of Last Man Standing or the marathon cool of Streets of Fire, but it does stand as some damn fine work.  Thanks to Hill’s direction, the pacing never gets slower than what the audience needs to breathe between chases and fights, and there is never, ever a desire to look down at one’s watch.  Even better, Hill demonstrates the ability to maintain suspense so that even when the audience knows that something’s coming, the exact timing of it remains enough of a surprise to keep things fun and exciting.  Bullet to the Head is a train that just doesn’t stop moving, and action fans get to reap the rewards.

And hey, how about that supporting talent?  After a long absence from the big screen, Bullet to the Head gives theatre audiences a fresh look at Christian Slater (Pump up the Volume), who does a great job in the role of a sleazy lawyer and who still doesn’t look to have aged a day in roughly twenty years.  Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, comes in the form of Jason Momoa (Conan the Barbarian), who plays Jimmy Bobo’s ultimate nemesis in the film with heavy doses of menace and relish, and who can actually stand toe to toe with Stallone and not seem out of place.  I think he may have found a real calling here…

Stepping back, it’s harder to put a finger on Sung Kang, the supporting lead.  On the one hand, he really does feel like the weak link in the chain here, with nowhere near the charisma or overall presence of any of his costars (he gets upstaged by everyone, especially Stallone), and an action-oriented presence that only hits the mark of “passable.”  No, he doesn’t stink up the place, but when one considers that his role was originally held by Thomas Jane, well…

On the other hand, the performance laid down by Sung Kang is exactly how the character of Kwon needs to be played if he is to remain true to the way he is written.  Kwon is a fish out of water, too fixed in his own moral identity for anyone’s good and only capable of stepping outside of his comfortable black and white box when circumstances leave him no other choice.  Providing this character with a commanding presence would have thrown everything else about the film off balance; making him slightly lost, on the other hand, both allows the film to move forward on the strength of Jimmy Bobo and provides much of the spark that keeps conflict between our hero characters alive throughout the story.  Would Bullet to the Head have been fun if Kang had been replaced by a more charismatic actor along the lines of the late Brandon Lee, inevitably forcing the story into the “buddy” realm?  Yeah, I think it would have been, but allowing such a major difference between characters to exist from start to finish – in turn allowing it to seem sensible that our heroes will never trust each other, no matter how many times they do the “I saved your bacon” pendulum swing – proves to be the braver, more interesting choice, and that helps to set Bullet to the Head apart from the standard formula of its genre without totally breaking the mold.

Ergo, Sung Kang’s relative weakness when set alongside the rest of the cast actually facilitates one of the film’s most interesting strengths.

This is further enhanced by other aspects of the writing.  The casual prejudices of the major characters are freely expressed throughout the film, but never in a way that feels forced or obnoxious.  Instead, these moments are written in very true-to-life fashion, making the characters even more believable rather than turning them into silly caricatures.  Several characters – especially Kwon – turn out to be experts at making bad decisions, but those bad decisions always make perfect sense given the presented circumstances and the mindsets of the characters as the audience comes to understand them.  Once again, what might at first feel like a flaw instead proves to be a strength that makes Bullet to the Head all that much more interesting and its characters all that much more real.

Yes, Bullet to the Head may initially present as a standard, straight-up action flick, but with even a moment’s real consideration, it turns out to be so much more than that.  Call it a pleasant surprise.

Or, nevermind the thoughtful stuff and just enjoy the explosions, the knives, the axe duel, the snarling repartee, and the occasional random boob shots.  That works, too.

Either way, if you’re any kind of action fan, you win.

Bottom line, Bullet to the Head is a welcome treat for any fan of Sly Stallone and the Golden Age of Action Movies, and well worth a look for anyone else who’s curious, too.  Stuff goes “boom,” knife wounds bleed, and the action’s always on the move, but there’s also something more here, and that “something more” makes this not only worth catching on the big screen, but also worth owning for the small screen once that time comes along.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2013

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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