Walter Hill thoughtfully regards the pummeling power of weaponry at work. Gunshot wounds to the temple or knife thrusts to the sternum aren't simply aesthetic choices in films like Extreme Prejudice or Wild Bill, but reminders of the seamless, brutal, and un-ironic cost of violence on the human body. It's cinema as pure sound and fury, and it leaves a mark.
This distinct tone sets Hill's latest broozer of a film, Bullet to the Head, apart from recent action releases like Gangster Squad and The Last Stand, morally reprehensible and mindless efforts that feign sympathy and compassion while goofily relishing in gun violence and blood sport. Bullet to the Head accepts that binaries like good and evil, classicism and slapstick are useless when trying to comprehend the suddenness of death; they're mere distractions from the real reasons (sometimes contradictory) that people define themselves by the weaponry they master.
Hill's stable of hoods and mercenaries are volatile professionals with very little need for a conscience. But his true heroes have one anyways. Sylvester Stallone's James Bonomo, a low-level New Orleans hitman who loses his partner during a double cross in the brilliantly frenetic early moments of the film, confesses as much when he says, "Sometimes you have to abandon your principles and do the right thing." Delivered with the actor's patented vocal growl, these sage words come to define the film's skewed, but not necessarily warped, sense of justice.
Opposites always attract in a Hill film, so it's fitting that James is forced to team up with a visiting Washington D.C. cop, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), whose investigation of his own partner's death has led him down to the bayou. As the two men kill their way up the organized-crime ladder, Hill pokes fun at James's brutish view of race and culture (Asian jokes abound), while also exposing Taylor's overdependence on new technologies (cellphones, the Internet) during the investigation. Their modern/primitive banter may seem facile at first, but it's there to prove each character's flawed resiliency: James and Taylor remain steadfast to their respective views of the world until the bitter end.
If Bullet to the Head adheres to a worn-out narrative trajectory involving corruption, blackmail, and urban gentrification, it transcends genre convention by planting strong thematic impulses within Hill's brilliant stylistic flourishes. Luck, both bad and good, is a potent motif throughout; a near-collision with a black cat, where James's headlights momentarily illuminate the feline's eyes, becomes a fitting appreciation for the idea that life can end at any moment. There's also a fascination with regional history, both in Hill's focus on Southern architecture and decay, and a few surprisingly deep reflections about time and place from supporting characters.
The action scenes themselves, each slightly unique in the way Hill paints them with a hazy grain and rusty quality, are a mix of hand-to-hand fisticuffs and brazen gunfights supplemented by crushing sound effects. Whether it's a blunt-force beatdown inside a Turkish bath house or the wonderfully kinetic final axe fight between James and a psychotic killer, Keegan (Jason Momoa), Hill's camera is likened to a sniper's scope, zeroing in and out to amplify the pacing and movement of combat. The film's squealing harmonica score adds even more unique flavor, giving these moments a deeply Cajun-esque flair appropriate to the setting.
This isn't to say that Bullet to the Head doesn't smartly critique the violence it depicts. There's a relevant examination of greed running beneath the film's surface, not only in regard to money, but in the case of the swiftly lethal Keegan, the senseless act of murder itself. This latter-day barbarian, a direct opposite of James and Taylor, revels in the images of mass murder. For that, he's not just seen as evil, but disturbingly modern.