Film Review: Bullet to the Head

Hitman teams with cop to avenge his partner's death in a gritty Sylvester Stallone vehicle.

Sylvester Stallone plays to his base in Bullet to the Head, a gratifying return to the action genre by director Walter Hill. A no-frills adaptation of a French graphic novel, the film delivers what fans want in a business-like manner. But with few concessions to younger, more mainstream viewers, Bullet to the Head may find itself entombed in the action-film ghetto.

The role of James "Jimmy Bobo" Bonomo, a New Orleans-based assassin, works to Stallone's strengths, giving him lots of action and a few terse zingers. It's up to his partners to explain the plot, first Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) and then, when a hit on a corrupt cop goes south, Washington, DC detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang). Filling in more background about a corrupt real-estate development scheme: sleazy lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater) and African exile and millionaire Robert Morel (the grimly effective Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

But really, how much plot do you need? Double-crossed in the opening scenes, Bobo stalks clues in bars, tattoo parlors, spas and expensive mansions, shooting, knifing or just beating anyone who gets in his way. Kwon trails behind, feigning outrage while stumbling repeatedly into deathtraps. Both men are after Keegan (Jason Momoa, last year's Conan the Barbarian), Morel's take-no-prisoners enforcer.

Encounters in high-rise parking lots, freeway underpasses and abandoned factories have a gratifyingly retro feel, evoking earlier Hill efforts like 48 Hrs., Trespass and Last Man Standing. And lurking underneath the stunts and explosions is a sordid little noir about a hopelessly corrupt New Orleans police department and the criminals who manipulate it.
But first and foremost, Bullet to the Head is about action, from car chases and shootouts to hand-to-hand combat. Choreographed by Don Tai (who also worked on The Expendables 2), the fights are tough, kinetic and plausible enough, with both Stallone and Momoa in outstanding form. Hill stages the gunfights with a minimum of fuss, although the high body count ultimately feels excessive.

Stallone, who has been playing parts like Bobo for decades, tosses off his one-liners with professional ease. "Take him in, take him out, whatever," he shrugs when discussing the fate of a suspect on the lam. The actor gets the opportunity to show a more vulnerable side with tattoo artist Lisa (Sarah Shahi) in a subplot that turns out better than expected.

Not that Stallone and Hill have gone all touchy-feely. Bullet to the Head slips into a locker-room swagger that's hard to take at times. Kwon gets tagged with Oddjob, Kato and Confucius, among other slurs, while a costume ball becomes an excuse to focus on naked models dancing the tango.

But Stallone, in the midst of a pretty remarkable late-career surge, has succeeded by making sure his fans are happy. Bullet to the Head does just that, with an efficiency that borders on the impersonal.