Walter Hill’s first film in a decade has become an instant footnote, forever to be described as one of star Sylvester Stallone’s biggest flops. For a time, this seems a just fate for Bullet to the Head. The only thing more awkward than the dialogue Stallone has to mutter as a revenge-hungry hitman is his name, Jimmy Bobo, and the film’s grungy color tones and camerawork make The Warriors seem like the work of Zhang Yimou. Sped-up helicopter shots that transition between scenes recall third-rate television more than the two TV projects Hill worked on between feature outings. The roughness of the image and pace occasionally suggest the work of a greenhorn given his first break on a direct-to-video film, not an accomplished genre filmmaker of Hill’s caliber.
Gradually, however, the elements of contemporary action filmmaking—snap-zoom handheld direction, oppressively dour palettes—give way to a shamelessly retro look back at ’80s action films, putting both director and star firmly in their element. Hill updates the cop-criminal pairing of 48 Hrs. by putting Stallone’s Jimmy, out for revenge against a client who burned him, with detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang). As the two uncover an increasingly elaborate conspiracy involving local New Orleans cops, corporate interests, and even the federal government, the key conflict of the film concerns less the duo’s fight against external foes than their internal squabble over the distinction of taking bad guys “in” or “out.” In Hill’s own estimation, his “buddy” films have always been “anti-buddy” films, and Bullet to the Head bears out the director’s love of irreconcilable differences between reluctant partners.
Stallone, who looks harder than even the stiffest dialogue, fares well, while Kang turns his inability to live up to the staid tough-guy platitudes of the script into an asset, matching his impotent line readings to Taylor’s meek reliance on technology. (Were the film less resolutely old school, Taylor’s general role of typing queries into his phone and parroting the response suggest this could easily have been a buddy film between Stallone and Siri.) Nevertheless, Hill respects the incompatibility of the men’s various codes of conduct, which includes that of chief henchman Keegan (a show-stealing, taciturn Jason Momoa), whose military training motivates him more than a paycheck.
The scale of Bullet to the Head is refreshingly restrained in a time of bloated blockbusters, and that holds true for the action scenes. A few booby-trapped items provide the requisite explosions, but fighting tends to take place between two people at a time. Most of the action hardly even qualifies as such, as gunfire ends confrontations as soon as they begin. The close-quarters combat proves so nasty that one hopes a gun will be forthcoming to put a swift stop to things. Bystanders often bear witness to the brutality, be it nobodies cowed into silence or even key characters like Taylor or Jimmy’s daughter, Lisa (Sarah Shahi), and their numbed, aghast faces have the last word on the violence. Bullet to the Head never rises even to the second tier of Hill’s filmography, but such grim acknowledgments of the material’s horrific absurdity ground the affectionate throwback to unpretentious, lean action filmmaking without deconstructing it. If nothing else, it takes some skill to make one pine for the days of early-’90s Blockbuster shelf padders.
Warner’s 1080p transfer faithfully replicates the theatrical presentation, including the image’s many artifacts. Uneven contrast is noticeable from shot to shot, and sometimes within them, plunging in and out of soft gray sheens that occasionally give the impression that shots and reverses were filmed on separate days, if not separate locations. Macroblocking is prevalent in some scenes, most notably during the Turkish bathhouse sequence, in which light reflections off the water explode in pixels. Much stronger is the audio track, a 5.1 lossless mix that leans heavy on the bass from the opening blasts of an animated bullet ripping through production-company logos. Gunshots, punches, and the scrape of axe on axe all boom, but the track’s clarity and depth also brings out the lingering pain of each blow.
Appropriate for such a stripped-down, generic feature, Bullet to the Head doesn’t exactly come packed with bonus material. The sole extra is a brief feature called "Mayhem Inc." that plays as a well-edited piece of EPK fluff. Just over nine minutes long, the featurette splits its time between the expected fawning over Sylvester Stallone from the crew and star-struck co-stars and fragmented clips of the action sequences being filmed. The short contains no insights that a moderately attentive viewer could not have spotted in the film proper, but with so many blatantly computer-animated squibs used in the movie, it’s refreshing to see some honest-to-God fake blood on the ground.
Walter Hill’s "anti-buddy" movie arrives on a disc as barebones as the feature presentation, but at the film’s best, it fondly recalls a time when dependably entertaining, mid-budget action was the rule and not the exception.