Despite Walter Hill at the helm, ‘Bullet to the Head’ is a bore
Bullet to the Head marks Walter Hill’s return to feature film directing after a ten year absence. Though dissimilar to career highs like The Warriors or The Driver, Bullet to the Head’s basic set-up of a cop teaming up with someone on the other side of the law, in this case a hitman, puts the director on the familiar ground of his past fare like 48 Hrs. It’s also familiar territory for producer Joel Silver. Ever the fan of mismatched partners in an action comedy context, Silver had original co-star Thomas Jane removed from the film and replaced by Asian-American actor Sung Kang, a regular of the Fast and the Furious series, wanting a “more ‘ethnic’ actor” to appeal to a wider audience. With a replication of past formulas from producer and director, as well as star Sylvester Stallone on leading man duty, Bullet to the Head is a glaring tribute to a certain brand of 1980s thriller, complete with such choice cliché dialogue as “this goes all the way to the White House!” The only problem is that the film is so rarely thrilling at all.
Stallone is definitely not the problem here, with the actor taking some of the script’s awkward jokes and plodding dialogue and at least embellishing some of it with bursts of charm. Acting-wise, the main issue is with Kang as the D.C. detective willing to exploit some legal gray areas with Stallone’s hitman if it means ensnaring a bigger criminal threat (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Seemingly abandoning the charisma displayed in his Justin Lin collaborations, his banter with Stallone has no electricity and the tedious character becomes a mascot for the film’s often flatlining nature. Hill’s action sequences here, or even just scenes of basic tension, possess none of the excitement or menace that made his genre classics so enjoyable. The only time he comes close is with an axe-based duel that conceptually feels like something out of one of his more eclectic, interesting films.
Saving Bullet from the Head from complete failure is a charismatically nasty assassin played by Jason Momoa – looking like a beefier version of the late Brandon Lee in his introduction – who provides an actual sense of danger that the direction doesn’t; the sadistic character’s motivations are so hard to define, even those in charge (which includes Christian Slater on slumming, slimy form) don’t really know that they can trust him. Momoa elevates his material and gets a fun, ludicrous tone down just right. It’s a shame what surrounds him didn’t follow suit.