Although released in 2013, Bullet to the Head was actually filmed before 2012’s The Expendables 2, but distributor Warner Bros. delayed its release for unknown reasons, probably to mooch off the success of Sylvester Stallone’s ensemble actioner. Sly has directed a number of his recent projects, including 2006’s Rocky Balboa and 2008’s Rambo, but Bullet to the Head finds the aging action star back as an actor for hire. And it was a terrific move; rather than a stereotypical Stallone flick, this is a dark Walter Hill movie concerned with antiheroes and brutal violence, and it’s not an ego trip for anyone involved. It’s a vastly enjoyable, bruising action-thriller brimming with machismo, and it revives the spirit of the 1980s with genuine panache.

Set deep in the heart of New Orleans, Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) is a grizzled assassin with no faith in the American justice system, who’s content to mete out his own brand of justice: a bullet to the head. Jimmy’s partner Louis (Jon Seda) is killed by enforcer Keegan (Jason Momoa) after the two execute corrupt cop Hank Greely (Holt McCallany) on an assignment. Wanting to avenge Louis and find out who set them up, Bobo is forced to team up with detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a cop investigating Greely’s death. Although Kwon should arrest Jimmy, he has bigger fish to fry, wanting to use the hitman to follow the clues and solve the conspiracy.

In terms of structure and narrative, Bullet to the Head is identical to the action films of the ’80s and ’90s, with a straightforward story giving way to shootouts, fisticuffs, violence in general, and one-liners, not to mention bare breasts and hot women as well. Unfortunately, the film feels underdone and far too short, clocking in at a scant 85 minutes. Alessandro Camon’s screenplay takes a few lazy narrative shortcuts to maintain the slim runtime, with Kwon getting information over the phone at a moment’s notice without anyone questioning what he’s up to. It’s strange that Kwon is not held on a leash considering he’s in another city, and it’s frustrating that the other local cops are so thoroughly useless, with vague motivations. It feels as if the film is rushing through its narrative, which may keep the pace taut but it needed more breathing room and dialogue-driven character moments. It’s hard to determine if this is due to Camon’s screenplay or the editing, but Bullet to the Head needed to be longer.

Bullet to the Head signifies Walter Hill’s return to the director’s chair, as he hadn’t helmed a theatrical feature film since 2002’s Undisputed. A veteran of the action genre, Hill is up to his usual tricks here, infusing the production with the type of magic glimpsed in movies like 48 HRSThe Warriors and Extreme Prejudice. Although Bullet to the Head is actually an adaptation of a comic book, it feels like a Walter Hill movie all over, with tough guys, R-rated violence and a bluesy score. He was a superb pick for this material, and he hasn’t lost his deft filmmaking touch despite his old age. Hill’s style is distinctly old-school; low on CGI and with minimal shaky-cam, favouring practical fake blood and use of an actual tripod. Hill delivers in a huge way when locked in action mode, with plenty of thrills keeping the picture exhilarating and involving. The most notable set-piece involves the huge Momoa battling the smaller Stallone with an axe; the ensuing fight is exceptional.

The script is peppered with sharp dialogue, particularly from Jimmy who spouts all the one-liners. The racial difference is played up as well, with Jimmy making a few slightly racist jabs against his Korean partner. This is easily one of Stallone’s best acting performances in recent years, showing yet again that he’s a strong on-screen presence despite being 65 during principal photography. Sly is a captivating badass, and he owns the role of Jimmy Bobo. This is probably the darkest, most crass antihero Stallone has played in his career, and he embraced it whole-heartedly, making us wonder why exactly it took so long for him to team up with Hill. Meanwhile, Kang is a little less successful. Thomas Jane was actually cast initially, but producer Joel Silver ejected him in favour of Kang, hoping for an ethnic actor to broaden box office appeal. (The irony, of course, is that the film bombed anyway, and it might’ve even performed better with Jane.) While Kang is serviceable here, he by no means owns the role, and one must wonder how much better the film might’ve been if Jane had starred. Fortunately, Momoa is better, making for a strong villain. Also look out for Christian Slater (who hasn’t done anything memorable for years) tackling a colourful supporting role as one of the guys who set up Jimmy.

If you like R-rated action movies and yearn for a solid throwback to the action heyday of the ’80s, or just want some respite from idiotic CGI-riddled superhero movies, Bullet to the Head is a movie for you. The appeal is pretty much restricted to fans of the action genre of course, but it remains stylish and competently-crafted regardless of your tastes. Although it isn’t a particularly inventive action film, and although it doesn’t touch the greatness of buddy movies like Lethal Weapon, there is plenty of fun to be had here, and it’s pure ecstasy when guns are pulled, knives are brandished and punches are thrown. Its failure at the box office is one of the most disheartening injustices in recent memory.