BR: Bullet to the Head (2012)

August 31, 2013 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / B

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Good

Label: Home/ Region: A / Released: June 16, 2013

Genre: Action / Comic Book / Crime

Synopsis: A hitman implicated in a cop’s murder must find the real killer before’s he’s arrested by New Orleans’ finest, or taken out by its worst.

Special Features: Making-of featurette / Bonus DVD

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Review:

Walter Hill’s return to feature films after a 10 year drought is cause for rejoicing among his fans, but not unlike Supernova (2000), his next-to last film before drifting to TV, Hill’s involvement with this production stemmed from opportunity rather than choice.

As the backstory reportedly goes, this adaptation of Alexis Nolent and Colin Wilson’s French graphic novel (“Du plomb dans la tete”) was in development for some time before a director and cast were assigned. When creative differences with star Sylvester Stallone sent original director Wayne Kramer packing, Hill was brought in through the suggestion of then-costar Thomas Jane. The inclusion of producer Joel Silver sent Jane packing due to a co-star rethink, and Sung Kang (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) was the new replacement for what further developed into a more Hillsian buddy crime film.

How much of the script changed during this time is unknown, but there are aspects that bear the imprimatur of Hill: a straight, linear storyline, a core group of characters with little peripheral distractions, and limited dialogue so the stars with their physical qualities, can convey information (attitude, emotions, and psychological states) without aural clutter. There’s also a peculiar gag that’s literally lifted from Hill’s 1988 buddy cop / crime film Red Heat starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi: in the first scene when hitman James Bonomo (Stallone) abruptly advances the car’s speed, coffee spills into the lap of partner & passenger Louis (Jon Seda), and like James Belushi’s reaction to the same incident, Louis complains ‘everyone’s gonna think I pissed in my pants.’

The action films bear Hill’s kinetic speed, and there’s the re-use of a health spa for a fight scene between Bonomo and a thug. Hills similarly uses a spa for confrontation at the beginning of Red Heat; and the location functions as a teaser encounter between fight agent Speed and a wealthy thug in Hill’s Hard Times [M] (1975). In Bullet to the Head, however, the eventually spa battle that involves crashing ceramic tiles with human bodies was assembled in a more contemporary editing style, and Timothy Alverson’s cuts are often discontinuous, scattering motion and continuity in a predictable way which espouses the fast style of Terry Rawlings (Casino Royale) but bears some of the incoherence and vanity of Richard Pearson (Quantum of Solace).

There’s also Stallone’s age and physique which bear the veins and abuse from decades of inflating muscles through heavy exercise and other means, and at times he’s truly grotesque. The situation is aggravated by showing Stallone as a fiftysomething hitman wearing a solid helmet of black hair; grey streaks were added in some day shots, but these appear as glaring continuity gaffes rather than a hint at the character’s true age.

Stallone may have the physical power of playing an aged, virile, and hard thinking hitman, but he’s a good 10-15 years too old for the role… and yet in spite of the aforementioned problems, Bullet is neither a dud nor gem, but a meh comic book action film that’s well-assembled, and like many of Hill’s films, contains some solid sequences.

The story of a hitman suspected of killing a corrupt cop and seeking the plot’s architects with the aide of an American-Korean detective and his daughter wears thin very fast when sympathetic detective Taylor Kwon (Kang, who has great chemistry with Stallone) is able to frequently communicate with his superiors without any tracing issues or recriminations, but there are some great casting coups, especially Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (TV’s Oz) as a corrupt land developer, and Christian Slater playing his scumbag associate. Slater, long absent from A-level films, makes a great comeback in a small role playing a moral worm, and has the best full-on attitude exchange with Stallone before an appropriate action silences his bullshit.

Sarah Shahi (TV’s Person of Interest) is fine as Bonomo’s tattoo artist daughter Lisa, but like many of Hill’s female characters, she’s the archetypal moll / hot chick / girlfriend used to draw the hero away from a safe place for a rescue. Shahi is lovely, but a blatant topless scene is a clear indication her character will not develop beyond shapely furniture.

The film’s most interesting villain is a lesser character but the most Hillsian. Jason Momoa (Conan the Barbarian) speaks minimal dialogue, but like many of Hill’s anti-heroes and grey villains, he has a specific code that decides when it’s time to redress a superior who’s flaunted enough insults, and as ex-green beret Keegan, Momoa uses his impressive physical presence to slowly build his otherwise flat character. His final confrontation with Bonomo offers some choice dialogue, but like the fighters in the end battle in Hard Times, the two adversaries may have respect for each other, but their goal is still very clear: kill the sonofabitch.

Their duel using axes is a minor classic, and it offers a satisfying payoff for some of the contrived material that sends Bonomo back & forth across New Orleans. Hill doesn’t offer anything new to the action genre nor his own canon of films with mythic genre heroes, but it’s an adequate film. Perhaps the one ingredient that would’ve warmed the hearts of fans is a score by longtime collaborator Ry Cooder, but since he’s largely left film scoring (his final work for Hill was 1996’s Last Man Standing), Steve Mazzaro’s score lacks the kind of coarse, organic quality needed for a Hill film, especially moments of gnashing metallic clamor.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray contains a rudimentary making-of featurette but nothing marking the uniqueness of Hill’s return to feature films. He’s been missed for a good ten years, and although Bullet isn’t the blatant shit pile that is Supernova – he was one of several directors assigned to the disastrous project which underwent huge editorial changes and reshoots – it’s not the classic film we hoped would bring further film work to the master, or be an appropriate swan song should he slide back to producing.

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

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