You can almost smell the formaldehyde emanating from Bullet to the Head, the new Sly Stallone vehicle directed by the ancient and irrelevant Walter Hill. From the formulaic “odd-couple” mash-up of Stallone’s thuggish hitman, Jimmy Bobo (a name that could only exist in the Italian Stallion’s canon) and the nebbish cop Taylor Kwon (Suang Yang) to the frankly pedantic action scenes, Bullet to the Head doesn’t quite make its viewers wish to literally experience its title – but it comes close, very close indeed.

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Nothing encapsulates the ineffectiveness of Bullet quite like its star, Sylvester Stallone, whose roid-riddled body and disturbingly angular face has never looked scarier or more inhuman. His Jimmy Bobo – along with his character from The Expendables, Barney Ross – is yet another example of the actor’s general refusal to allow his dynamic status from the 1980′s to fade. His career in the 2000′s has been built around this theme of stubborn resurrection, including his new versions of Rocky and Rambo.

However, unlike those iconic characters, who maintained our attention due to the sheer mythic weight of their presence, no such magnetism is created in Bullet. Here, Stallone again finds himself in one of his stock action roles from the 1980′s, the only difference being that the movie-going culture has changed and the style of Bullet is now so dated and dusty that one can’t even really derive much pleasure from the simple, mindless nostalgia it evokes.

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After a ten year reprieve from features, Walter Hill’s return to cinemas is emphatically underwhelming. Although it is easy to understand what drew him to the project, as the set-up for Bullet is classic Hill in many ways and offers the same sort of violent machismo found throughout the director’s canon. However, Hill’s gravitation for borderline B-movie material has rarely been quite so blatant than it is here. Worse still the director fails to incorporate any of the fantastical elegance which elevated his earlier action pieces like Hard Times and The Driver, opting instead for a listless palette  and spending way too much time on the banal car interior conversations between Bobo and Kwon.

These pacing issues are the central culprit behind the non-existent energy of Bullet to the Head. For a film which features what should have been a familiar yet enjoyably pulpy storyline (a cop and a hitman reluctantly joining forces against a shared enemy) Head’s forward momentum is diluted through seemingly endless scenes of stereotypical baddies espousing the mind-numbing details of their master plan (something about illegal real-estate practices) or Stallone and Yang trading barbs straight out of the first draft of Rush Hour 3. The film yearns for an editor with a vendetta and a writer innovative enough to shake-up the cliches synonymous with the two central characters’ relationship.

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In keeping up with the times, where every faded action star is clinging desperately to glory days long gone by, Bullet to the Head treads in material so familiar that simply labeling its existence redundant is insufficient. There are a myriad of differences between something like this and the other recent 80′s retread, Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s immensely superior The Last Stand. One of them being the superior efficacy of Stand’s performances. Schwarzenegger always was more skilled than Stallone when it came to successfully anchoring an action film. His ability to balance both the audience’s blood-lust for carnage with a crafty sense of humor and an amazing, meta-film acknowledgement of the genre’s absurdities rendered him the undisputed king of this particular type of film.

Conversely, Stallone seems to not be in on the joke, lumbering through his set-pieces with an annoying self-serious persona. Bullet is one of the most egregious examples of this. Sure, the film tries hard to establish a sort of fluid, comic energy between Stallone and Yang’s characters but for the most part Stallone plays his character very straight and does not bring any sort of nuance or complexity to Bobo; the character remains a muscle-bound brute who is unlikable and uninteresting.

He is also not supported effectively by either the film’s supporting cast or the incoherent script by Alessandro Camon. Yang looks completely lost in his role, and is also not believable as a cop pulled into the unlikely situation of partnering with a hitman. The beautiful Sarah Shahi  shows up, heavily tattooed yet poorly written as Stallone’s somewhat estranged daughter (their relationship is underdeveloped to say the least). There is also a scenery-chewing Christian Slater (a long way from True Romance) and Jason Momoa, whose smug juggernant of a villain is one of the film’s best attributes, although his motivations are also left extremely ambiguous.

Final Verdict: A B-movie both aesthetically and thematically, Bullet to the Head is an unwelcome entry into the annals of the 80′s action film resurgence.  Banal direction, underwritten characters, and lethargic pacing derail much of the film’s energy. But it is the vanity of Stallone, and his desire to continually turn out products like Bullet that makes the film so utterly repellent to watch. It almost makes one want to respond directly to the film’s  ”Revenge never gets old” tagline, and let its star know that, contrary to what he seems to believe, it almost certainly does.

1stars

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