Growing up in the 1980s, you couldn’t help but have an appreciation for the type of action film from that decade, especially the buddy action film. They would never be high art, but there was an art to making them. It would kind of like building a Lego house built from time tested tropes. There would be about twenty to thirty reoccurring themes and trademarks that you’d find in these kinds of films. Not every film would have all of these tropes at the same time–the screaming police captain might be in the same film as the cop that doesn’t play by the rules, but not always. He might be in the film with the cop who goes too far in search of revenge.
Bullet to the Head is a call back to that era of action film, and has a lot of the same trademarks. It has a villainous plot that doesn’t seem really call for all that killing but has it anyway. It has charismatic villains with no sense of loyalty to each other. It has a woman with a emotional connection to the lead who eventually becomes a hostage. And it has a mismatched pair of heroes who can’t stand each other yet eventually gain a respect for each other as the bullets and snarky put-downs fly. It’s that last one where Bullet to the Head falters.
Sylvester Stallone portrays James Bonomo, a New Orleans contract killer with his own set rules that form a twisted morality (He only kills men that deserve it, Action movie trope #567). His latest hit goes off without a hitch. Well, that is until he and his partner try to get paid for it. That ends up with his partner getting killed and Bonomo angrily seeking revenge.
Enter Washington, DC police detective Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang). The man Bonomo killed was his ex-partner, a dirty cop who brought a file down to The Big Easy in order to blackmail certain individuals in town. Kwan’s quest to track down his wayward partner becomes instead an investigation to solve his death, none to the liking of the local police force.
Kwan’s investigation leads him to Bonomo and the pair team up to get to the bottom of the mystery (If you’re asking what was the sense in them teaming up, then action movies aren’t for you. These kinds of action films work best if you don’t ask these kinds questions). What they find is a conspiracy that rises up to the most powerful people in New Orleans. As they delve deeper and deeper into the deception, the question is who will win out: the by-the-book cop and his sense of justice, or the cold-blooded killer and his quest for revenge?
The film is true to its cheesy action film roots, with tweaks here and there to make it fresh. For instance, when Bonomo takes Kwan to a sultry tattoo artist named Lisa (Sarah Shahi), the woman isn’t Bonomo’s too-young-for-him girlfriend, but rather, his daughter. And the narrative is updated for the multimedia world of today, as whenever a character’s filed is pulled, the computer files flash up on the screen at us. This provided a special kind of entertainment for me, because the photos in these files were more often than not actual publicity photos of the actors playing the characters. Well, except for Stallone’s, because his mug shot from First Blood also sneaks into this film’s character’s criminal record.
And any action film is either enhanced or hindered by its bad guys. The three here are basically stereotypes of villains from every other action films, but brought to life by some pretty good acting. The main villain is Morel, a rich business man who will go to any lengths to get richer. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays his matter of fact evil with gusto. Ordering people killed is just part of his business, and he loves doing business. The man carrying out this business is Keegan, the ruthless mercenary with his own even more twisted sense of sense of honor (he believes negotiation is weak, killing is strong). Played by the charismatic Jason Momoa, Keegan is a classic henchman, a menacing badass who you want to see get his but hope it doesn’t come for a long time. And there is the sycophantic toady Marcus played by Christian Slater, channelling his Jack Nicholson impersonation to show what might have happened if J.D.Dean actually grew up. It was good to see Slater on the big screen again, and he is great in his limited role. Too bad it wasn’t in a better movie.
Because the film has one major flaw, and it’s a fatal one–Sung Kang. Kang’s role was originally Thomas Jane’s, but Jane was replaced when Walter Hill and Joel Silver came on board (Hill replaced the original director, Wayne Kramer) and wanted an actor with more of an international appeal. This was a mistake. It’s not that Kang is a bad actor. It’s that he’s awful for this role. There is absolutely no chemistry between Stallone and Kang (or Kang and Shahi for that matter. When Lisa flirts with Taylor, you get the idea she’d have better luck flirting with a turnip). And if you are going to have a “buddy” element in the film, you need to see it on screen. There’s none here. When the insults and the putdowns between Kang and Stallone start coming, they have little effect because there is little connection visible between the characters. Oh, they express their dislike for each other, but Kang never shows it.
And this derails the film. With these kinds of films, you have to forgive a lot to experience ninety minutes of popcorn fun. But having the buddy part of a buddy action film not work is deadly. You really can’t ignore that. Which is a shame because the film had so much potential. I mean, the climactic battle between Stallone and Momoa is an ax fight in an abandoned warehouse! It takes a lot to have that in an action film and for you to still come out bored. Thomas Jane might not have been much better, but he wouldn’t have been any worse.