At first glance, Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head seems to be a standard exercise in action, a film loaded with mayhem but short on plot. Sporting a stripped down story that’s constructed around various set pieces, it sports a retro vibe harkening back to the action movies of the 80s, which seem to be all the rage at present. However, with Hill at the helm there’s more here than meets the eye. Having made a name for himself with The Warriors, The Long Riders, 48 Hrs. and others, the director has specialized in examining codes of honor, personal loyalties and clashes in ideology, old-school notions that have fallen to the wayside. Putting these elements front-and-center gives the film a degree of narrative heft that’s surprising, as does the finely nuanced performance from the movie’s lead, Sylvester Stallone, who brings a poignant sense of world-weariness to his character that ultimately has us sympathizing with this killer in our midst.
The setting is New Orleans and the story is as overheated as the city itself. Stallone is Jimmy Bobo, a veteran hit man whose latest job goes awry when his partner Louis (Jon Seda) is savagely killed. Seems that the victim of that hit was a cop gone bad and former partner of Washington D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang). He happens to be in the Big Easy on his own dime trying to vindicate his friend, deduces the hit was the work of a professional and miraculously tracks Bobo down. Upon doing so, he proposes that they work together, contending that they’re after the same target, as the man who hired him to kill his partner, was responsible for Louis’ death as well.
Bobo reluctantly agrees and another mismatch made in heaven results with the tech-savvy Kwon trading quips with the no-nonsense killer as they cut a bloody swath through New Orleans. They uncover government corruption, blackmail, murder and ambushes galore as the pair leaves a trail of dead bodies and property destruction in their wake so large, the city would certainly qualify for yet another chunk of federal aid. The structure of 48 Hrs. is the template Hill is adhering to and as such, this is a lean exercise in efficient filmmaking that other directors would do well to emulate. There’s never been much fat in the director’s movies. One scene builds upon the next, each efficiently moving the story along until a sense of momentum takes hold. That Bullet runs a mere 91 minutes is a testament to Hill’s storytelling style.
Stallone gives one of his best performances here, sporting a world-weariness that he wears in a regal manner, strongly shouldering the burdens that have befallen him without complaint – the embodiment of the maxim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s a subtle turn as we see the actor register the regret his character feels when the culmination of his past sins is laid at his feet. That’s not to say that there isn’t an element of fun to Stallone’s turn here. He snaps off nasty quips with the same fierceness as his character breaks necks with. He commands our attention and dominates the screen whenever he appears, reminding us of his unique place in the Hollywood star system.
While trying to recruit Robert Mitchum for his late western El Dorado, director Howard Hawks was asked by the actor what the story of the film was. The filmmaker replied, “No story, just characters.” Bullet was made in the same vein with Stallone holding center stage, ably supported by Kang, as well as Jason Momoa and Christian Slater as memorable baddies. Hill keeps this well-oiled machine humming, reminding us that when a pro is at the wheel, all that’s needed are the basic elements of film to deliver a rousing piece of entertainment.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.