Assuming you’re completely okay with a straight-faced, no-nonsense, action movie starring a past-retirement-age Sylvester Stallone, you’re probably going to have a good time with Bullet to the Head, which works on more than one level. It’s a competent buddy-cop movie, a decent revenge-thriller, contains elements of film noir, and also functions as a throwback to junky action films of the 1980s. Pack all of that into a 90-minute ride, and you’ve got yourself a good time at the movies.
We begin with the death of a man and an injury to his partner. Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) — seriously, that’s his name — and Louis (Jon Seda) pull off a job — they’re hitmen — and go to a bar for some celebratory drinks. Here, another hitman, Keegan (Jason Momoa), stabs Louis to death and tries to kill Jimmy, only to be driven away by the older man. Now, Louis is dead and Jimmy wants revenge. He’s going to fight his way to the top of the criminal ladder in order to find out who ordered his and Louis’ death, and then take out that person.
Meanwhile, a Detective from outside the town, Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang), is sent to investigate the murder that Jimmy and Louis pulled off earlier. Upon discovering Louis’ death, he winds up tracking down Jimmy and offers to team up with the hitman to take down the criminals far more important than a common hitman. So begins the buddy-cop element to Bullet to the Head. These are reluctant allies who could turn on one another at any moment. Their banter is also some of the most fun the film has to offer.
Maybe I’m an easy audience member to please, but listening to Sylvester Stallone be semi-racist and too old to understand how a cell phone works, and watching Sung Kang try to get him to join the 21st century made me laugh. There aren’t a lot of these scenes in Bullet to the Head, but they’re funnier than a lot of other mismatched-partner films likely because it’s not overdone through its duration. These are brief scenes that break up the violence that serves as our primary focus.
Yes, most of the film is violence. Jimmy has to fight his way up the ranks of the New Orleans crime scene, and this results in a series of one-on-one confrontations. This is a bloody film with more kick to it than you’d expect. It’s a straight-faced film that seems like it would be far more at home in the ’80s than in 2013. As that, it actually works better than the Stallone-directed Expendables series, which is too silly and too stupid to work as a throwback or homage.
Granted, when you take a step back and think about this film — and in particular, its villain — you’re also probably going to be inclined to throw those terms at it, too. The main bad guy is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and his evil plan is … to build affordable condominiums. No, you didn’t just misread that. He’s involved in corruption and murder to do that, but that’s his big scheme. That’s both silly and stupid, but when you’re watching the film it doesn’t feel that way because of the tone established by director Walter Hill.
That’s really what separates Bullet to the Head from other ’80s “homages”; it doesn’t think of the subject as light or stupid, and instead revels in its gritty, if a bit cheesy, action scenes and heroes. Stallone even gets a few one-liners, and they’re pretty good ones. Sometimes people say that you have to be in the right mindset to enjoy a film like this one; Bullet to the Head puts you in that mindset by not messing around. That’s what makes it succeed even if you don’t have high hopes going in.
This isn’t to call Bullet to the Head a complete success. It has the most basic of plots, which means you’ll feel as if you’ve seen it before. And surprises or shocks fail to have their desired effect because of its simplicity and predictability. Jimmy has a tattoo artist of a daughter (Sarah Shahi) who exists for two reasons: (1) to be captured late in the picture and (2) because we need more nudity in our movies. The editing of the action scenes is also too frantic for its own good, possibly in an attempt to hide that, despite being in great shape for his age, it probably looks really silly watching him fight Jason Mamoa in hand-to-hand combat.
You can’t deny that for a man in his mid-’60s, Sylvester Stallone is in tremendous shape. I mean, how many 65-year-olds still have a six-pack? That doesn’t make him a good actor, but it does at least give some credibility to the screenplay, which frequently has him square off against people half his age. Stallone’s job is to carry the action scenes and for the most part he’s able to do that.
In an age where throwbacks and homages to the action films of the 1980s is somewhat commonplace, Bullet to the Head actually feels like an ’80s action flick, not an homage to one. It plays things straight, and while there are laughs, they don’t come from the acknowledgment that the material is silly. This separates Bullet to the Head from its contemporaries. It’s violent, it’s simple, and it’s predictable, but its mix of action, noir, revenge, and buddy-cop makes for an enjoyable cocktail.