(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on February 1, 2013.)
My initial reaction to Bullet to the Head was something along the lines of “it’s not meant to be Lawrence of Arabia, but it’s entertaining. It was fun.” However, after ruminating on it a few days, the film’s racist humor (and the audience reaction to it) started to get to me, and it left me rather cold; I thought I needed to examine why I’m about to give this movie the grade that follows. Bullet to the Head seems to be another in a long line of big-budget, should’ve-been-released-on-cable movies with large name actors at the helm. Sure, it’s a fun, retro, 80s-style action movie with updated gore effects (it certainly earns its title well), and it’s only 91 minutes long.
Knowing nothing about Du plomb dans la tête, the graphic novel serving as this film’s basis, I had high hopes for a bullet-filled, high-octane Sylvester Stallone thriller. The final product winds up being yet another “heroic killer” story, where Jimmy Bobo (Stallone), the morally-ambiguous-yet highly-principled assassin gets nastily double-crossed, thus forcing him to work with a relatively green, new-school cop (an extremely wooden Sung Kang) in order to find out who’s responsible. Throw in the assassin’s random family member (Sarah Shahi), and you’re almost certain that the movie’s going to wind up exactly where you think it’s going.
It’s in the going where the fun lies; there are a lot of entertaining shoot-‘em-ups, interrogations, bad acting, and Christian Slater to help move the story along. Honestly, I have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Slater, having enjoyed him in lead roles from The Legend of Billie Jean and Gleaming the Cube to his more recent work in films like Mindhunters and Dolan’s Cadillac. It’s nice to see him working, and he seems to have the most fun with his role as the villain’s lawyer, even if he is onscreen for only a few precious minutes. The villain’s subplot is almost entirely unnecessary and sometimes confusing; it all has to do with some kind of corruption scheme or land grabbing or blackmail or something evil like that. Plot machinations of films of this type are a dime-a-dozen, serving seemingly little more than giving folks an excuse to fire 9mm rounds into many unlucky bastards’ foreheads and to have large burly men duking it out with fireaxes.
As directed by Walter Hill (The Warriors, Last Man Standing, 48 Hours), Bullet to the Head has a similar gait and rhythm to his other films. Stylistic scene transitions, realistic violence, massive doses of testosterone, and a sleazy blues-rock soundtrack parade unchecked throughout this movie. The actors often seem undirected and ill-used, with Kang’s portrayal of Detective Taylor Kwon being a big example. A combination of script and lack of good direction make his character one of the most annoying I’ve seen in recent history, basically being there to verbally translate the plot for the audience, give Bobo moral commands that only wind up getting him punched in return, and to show how miraculous street medicine can be after being shot, as he’s up and running around not even two hours later.
The movie’s got a lot of problems with it, and that brings us to my soapbox; you can feel free to tune out and skip to my closing paragraph.
I don’t understand why a movie made in 2011 still uses racist stereotypes to provoke laughter. Bobo spouts racist remark after racist remark to Kwon, and the audience I saw it with guffawed heartily and ate it up. It seems to be an almost accepted thing to say things like “Asians can’t drive,” that they’re easily blindfolded by dental floss, and all Asians are ninjas, forgetting that the ninja is a Japanese construct (which Kwon, a Korean, points out). If Bobo had to ride around with a black man and spouted similar bigotry, we wouldn’t laugh as loud, would we? As an Asian-American, it made me uncomfortable to watch scenes like this in this day and age, especially with how some audience members reacted to it with such a raucous glee, repeating the lines in their mirth.
Soapbox rant over.
What are we supposed to think of such movies? On one hand, the storytelling is fine enough, even if it’s a story we’ve heard numerous times before, and its action sequences and fight scenes (be it with guns or fists) are modestly entertaining; on the other hand, the film is sloppy, poor, and easily forgettable. To me, Walter Hill has always been a B-movie director of sorts, with his films being sweaty, grimy exercises in the extreme without being excessive or over-the-top, never fully rising to the film’s potential. Bullet to the Head is one of his lesser movies, sitting comfortably in the lower end of mediocrity. All the actors in this movie are capable of so much more (the recent Rambo is one of Stallone’s best, and Sung Kang is actually very excellent in Better Luck Tomorrow and the Fast and Furious movies), but Hill doesn’t seem to know what to do with any of them except to make them walking, talking clichés. Like I said, on first viewing, it’s a little fun; however, it’ll give you that uneasy feeling afterward, like the feeling you get when you’ve eaten a fried Twinkie and washed it down with molasses. In other words: you’ll want those 91 minutes back.
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