Watching the way aging action stars have entered old age has yielded a myriad of results, very few of which have been very pleasant or entertaining. Bruce Willis stars in a series of films with poor humor and dull action to smirk at his age. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced it in his comeback vehicle to bad results. Sylvester Stallone's approach is to revisit the glories of the past and completely ignore that he's getting older.
In that limited group he's also the most successful. He shows up in Bullet to the Head with the same groan in his voice with a body that rivals his Rocky physique. Aside from a couple of lines at the beginning of the film and details like him having an adult daughter it's like nothing has ever changed. At it's best, Bullet to the Head could have hit theaters and home video in the mid-'80s and fit comfortably among other stylized violence.
That familiarity does Bullet to the Head no favors. I'm too versed in the beats of both Stallone and director Walter Hill to get any pleasant surprise from the film. Even burgeoning action fans with a beginners knowledge of good fight scenes won't find too much to enjoy here. But, for those few who have never tasted a gritty action film, they may find themselves on a rewarding path to glories past.
Skipping to the past is also the way Bullet to the Head starts with contract killer Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) killing an unseen driver to save the life of Detective Kwon (Sung Kang). The film cuts back to earlier in the week when Bobo and his partner Louis (Jon Seda) clad in their finest Pulp Fiction suits kill a corrupt cop. This lands them into an ongoing land grab between a corrupt businessman (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), his skittish lawyer (Christian Slater), and their merciless assassin (Jason Momoa).
Bullet to the Head is good fun when Hill sets his performers in fights against each other and dull everywhere else. Bobo has one fight in a bathhouse that plays as a dark comic riff on the amazing brawl in a similar setting in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Just when Bobo or his opponent are about to get a cool quip or flashy move in they interrupt with the sudden thud of a fist or quick slam against the marble. Another fight scene later showcases the lumbering Momoa facing off against Stallone in a surprisingly agile duel of axes.
The violence also serves as a recurring joke regarding Bobo's skills as a killer. As brutal as he is he is up against opponents that can shrug bullets to the chest off like it's a mosquito bite, but go down like zombies as soon as a bullet hits the brain pan. The first time it happened I was a bit incredulous at someone walking away with gaping chest wounds. But by the third variation of Hill messing around with how many vital organs can be missed with multiple gunshots I was on board with the gag.
I just wish the connecting tissue between the running gags and fight scenes was a lot tighter. Bullet to the Head functions mostly as a buddy comedy with little chemistry between the partners. Hill is no stranger to this material as he helmed the mega-successful 48 Hrs. in 1982, basically creating the modern version of that genre. But Stallone, no stranger to team ups himself, doesn't have much of a spark with Sung Kang. Every time it seems like it's going to catch fire, like during an exchange of one-upmanship where they detail how best to kill one another, it gets deflated in another exchange of bickering before returning the two of them to their original state.
The rest of the cast is serviceable but not given much to do with Alessandro Camon's screenplay. The details about the plot with the businessman and the lawyer are dull filler with grave threats hurled in the dark killing any momentum the story builds up. Worst of all are the plot points regarding Bobo's daughter, played by Sarah Shahi, who offers cheap drama and skin with no scenes to highlight how good or bad a performer she may be.
There are many strengths Bullet to the Head but they reach toward better days for both director and star. It's good for a nostalgia trip, but an old story like this just doesn't bring much else to the table.