Bullet to the Head
Stallone’s attempt to get back in the game with an original starring vehicle appeared to flounder from the first. In the last decade he’s staged something of a career comeback with sequels to his best-known roles (Rocky Balboa, Rambo) and a new franchise leading an ensemble of aging action stars (The Expendables). Bullet had the veneer of a Stallone aspiring to be relevant; an adaptation of a French graphic novel, a director (Wayne Kramer) who had previously delivered a surprisingly great crime movie fairy tale (Running Scared, which even managed to make Paul Walker look good). So how did it end up as an uninspired reheat of 48 Hrs’ mismatched cop/criminal pairing, complete with Walter Hill calling the shots?
The answer most likely lies somewhere in the creative tunnel vision of its producer Joel Silver and Sly. Stallone is fairly well-recognised as a nightmare for fledgling directors (poor Danny Cannon on Judge Dredd, for example). As a writer-director he has just enough talent to make life difficult for those without clout on set and, as a star, too much ego not to be a prima donna. Kramer reportedly clashed at a fairly early stage (he wanted a darker vision), so he was mercifully spared the traumas involved with Crossing Over (at the meddling hands of the Weinsteins). Silver, not the name he one was, but in full possession of the sensibility of his ’80s/’90s self, also needed to make his presence felt.
The plot sees Stallone’s hit man team up with Sung Kang’s cop to bring down the gang who double-crossed Sly and killed his partner. Pretty much any ’80s buddy action movie you can think of (48 Hrs, Red Heat, Tango & Cash) is vastly superior to this. At a meagre ninety minutes it is pared-down but looks as if there was never enough story to make a more substantial version. This is a perfunctory affair, competently made but going through the motions of what Sly thinks a Stallone action movie should probably be.
He looks ridiculously ripped for a 66-year-old, with the kind of body only the best steroids can buy. Sly monotones his way through the entirely leaden dialogue and has zero chemistry with the charisma-free Kang (Han from the Fast and Furious movies). I’m not sure original choice Thomas Jane would have made matters a whole lot better, but Silver’s decision to recast the role with an Asian actor seems to have been predicated on the lazy idea that racial tension would serve as a replacement for fleshed-out characters. So Stallone makes dodgy references to Confucius and Odd Job; there’s no reason for this other than that Silver thinks he should be a bit like Nick Nolte (but on the other side of the law).
Hill handles the action as efficiently as you’d expect, but employs annoying visual clichés (a black and white introduction, orange-hued flashes and fades). A fairly annoying bluesy score also evokes an earlier era. The gratuitous nudity and violence cement the ’80s throwback vibe, but the rain of CGI blood announces its true vintage. Hill had been absent from cinemas for a decade prior to this, and this kind of pointless exercise that makes you think he shouldn’t have bothered returning. He was no doubt considered a safe pair of hands as he’d delivered on the genre for Silver several times before (48 Hrs, Red Heat), but the result only goes to underline the question of why anyone thought it would be a good idea. It would be nice if this got Hill more work, but Bullet crumpled at the box office.
There’s a suitably heavy-duty fight with fire axes between Stallone and Jason Momoa at the climax, and the latter has a good time playing the bad guy. As does Christian Slater as scumbag lawyer. But the script is so clumsy that Slater is required to tell Momoa the entire plot about twenty minutes in, even though he will be aware of this information anyway. The faux hardboiled dialogue is so consistently risible that there’s a point where you begin to assume it’s intentional.
Quite possibly Sly will have to settle on co-star status for the remainder of his career; he’s has pairings with Arnie (Escape Plan) and De Niro (Grudge Match) on the way, as well as Expendables 3. And Silver has nothing to aside from the Sherlock Holmes films as a claim to latter day success. Add to the pile the failure of Arnie’s comeback vehicle and, outside of the ensemble nostalgia flick, it looks like the ’80s action movie star is well and truly dead.