The last few years of moviegoing have seen a minor league revival for action stars of the 1980s; leading the pack were actor/writer/director Sylvester Stallone’s “all-star” (in every way but talent) Expendables movies, which tried their hardest to pack every action star known to man — Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Jet Li, Jason Statham — into one big, dumb celebration of big, dumb, violent ’80s action excess. The Expendables films (soon to become a trilogy) did reasonably well for themselves at the box office, but subsequent attempts to resurrect the old action dinosaurs in solo efforts have fallen flat. Schwarzeneggar’s The Last Stand didn’t quite flop, but didn’t distinguish itself, either; Stallone’s starring vehicle Bullet to the Head — directed by ’80s action legend Walter Hill, no less — similarly failed to make much of an impression, promptly disappearing upon release. Maybe audiences just weren’t that interested in the old kings anymore. Maybe nostalgia has its limits. Or maybe the period being looked back upon isn’t really worthy getting nostalgic about.
Bullet to the Head — directed by Hill and acted by Stallone with a numbing “do it for the paycheck” mentality that becomes almost endearing about midway through — is exactly the sort of forgettable ’80s action flick you would expect to find gathering dust in a five dollar bin at Wal-Mart. That it was made in 2013 just makes it seem that much sadder, that much wheezier. Hill and screenwriter Alessandro Camon are clearly aiming for a throwback to the heyday of almost comically macho male action fantasies, but the final result feels less homage than straight rip off, a direct to video movie that somehow got a theatrical release. Ironically, considering the main character, Stallone’s aging hit man Jimmy Bonomo, never seems to get worn down or tired, this is a movie that from its first frame feels tired, worn down, exhausted.
Bonomo is of that very specific breed of “movie hit men” who operate according to a “strict code of honor” — he will take out bad guys, but spares an innocent prostitute in the movie’s bloody opening scene. Bonomo is a flawless shot, lives on a booby trapped houseboat in New Orleans, and could give the energizer bunny a run for his money. This last detail is especially interesting considering Stallone himself is nearing seventy; the actor’s face, never exactly the most expressive in cinema history, seems to have solidified into a granite parody of itself, a perpetual pout and blank stare intended to stand in for anything resembling character or nuance. Stallone’s entire performance, in fact, feels like self parody — not the fun kind (see Schwartzeneggar in some of his later ’90s action films), but the lazy, listless kind, an actor relying on his audience to do most of the work for him. Stallone is given fairly large chunks of “tough guy” voice over narration to handle, and decides not to speak it but to grunt it, in a vocal register so low it sounds less like dialogue than like a backfiring combine. Presumably he’s supposed to sound “world weary”; mostly he sounds unintelligible.
Bonomo and a long time partner perform a successful hit in the movie’s (pointlessly) stylized opening sequence, before finding out that it has all been (wait for it…) a SET-UP — a vicious contract killer shows up and manages to take out Stallone’s partner while Stallone manages to escape into the night. Jason Momoa strides on the scene as Stallone’s would be assassin, and he too is made out of spare parts — built like a mountain, his mouth pulled back in a perpetual sneer, he’s the sort of movie assassin who enjoys killing so much he leaves a ridiculously bloody trail in his wake, alerting the law to the activities of the supposed “secret conspiracy” he’s working for. This time around, “the law” is represented by rookie detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), an out of towner so naive he fails to realize the New Orleans police can’t be trusted even after several of its members try to gun him down in broad daylight. Kwon is looking for the killer who’s cutting his way through New Orleans’ gang ranks; Bonomo wants revenge for his partner’s death. The two become (at least in theory) a classic “action movie buddy team”, even though Kwon spends virtually the entire run time of the movie sticking his gun in Bonomo’s face, insisting he’s going to arrest the older man, then bumbling into situations where Bonomo has to bail him out. A partnership where one member is an invincible testosterone God and the other is an idiot is not exactly the stuff great action movies are made of.
The film packs in all the requisite action ingredients. There is completely gratuitous nudity (the opening sequence keeps cutting back to pointless shots of a prostitute showering, as if Hill is yelling “See? See?! We earned our ‘R’ rating!”); there is the revelation that Momoa, the man of action, is working for corrupt businessmen in well pressed suits — in this case, urban developer Robert Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — we know he’s evil because his character walks with a cane) and his sleazy lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater, who at least seems to be enjoying himself). (In an era where Wall Street tycoons defraud millions without having to load a gun, it seems a little silly that the villain’s plan, requiring the wholesale slaughter of dozens of New Orleans residents and a massive cover-up, is…to demolish some housing projects and construct an office building! Mwa-ha! — hunh?) There are the standard one liners (with less bite than usual), and the requisite assassinations and shoot outs and knock-down-drag-’em-outs (which, to be fair, Hill does not cop out on — if seeing Jason Momoa and Sylvester Stallone duel with fire axes is your idea of a good time, then boy howdy, is this the movie for you). There is also an element surprisingly common to this era of “octagenarian” action pictures, the estranged child: Bonomo has a daughter, a sassy tattoo artist named Lisa (Sara Shahi), who is there to deliver the standard backstory about how poor Jimmy never had a real childhood and to be easy kidnap bait in the movie’s last act. Stallone the actor connects with Shahi the actress to the same extent he connects with any of his fellow performers — i.e. not at all, preferring to simply stare off into space and let his own legend and charisma carry the movie. At least the most recent Die Hard movies allowed Bruce Willis little moments of self reverential “I’m too old for this crap” humor; perhaps out of ego, Stallone never plays Jimmy Bonomo as anything other than an indestructible power of masculinity, making the occasional “old man” jokes seem pointless. Why make a movie about an aging action star if you try to deny the fact that he’s aged?
This brings up the final, most troubling question about Bullet to the Head: who is this movie for, exactly? Acolytes of the modern age of rapidly cut shoot ’em ups are unlikely to take to Bullet to the Head’s faux-noir gumshoe mystery story pacing; and anyone beyond the age of 14 or 15 is likely to remember than while Rambo might’ve been two dimensional, he at least had a personality beyond a set of droopy eyelids and a hangdog expression. (On the film’s poster, Stallone looks like he’s about to fall asleep — truth in advertising if ever it existed.) Bullet to the Head can’t even aspire to the level of “entertaining schlock” achieved by some of Stallone’s better ’80s action pictures; this one aims straight for the bargain bin. Maybe people who shop there will like it. But even they must know they deserve better than this.