Bullet to the Head

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/31/13 15:07:36

"Wild Hill"
5 stars (Awesome)

"Bullet to the Head" is an action extravaganza that contains virtually all of the elements that one might expect to find in a film of its type--brawny heroes, hissable villains, half-naked babes, diabolical-yet-confusing plots involving shady land grabs, crooked cops and politicians, abandoned warehouses, chases, gunfire, explosions, stabbings and a climactic fight scene in which hugely muscled guys continue to pound the bejesus out of each other despite having absorbed enough punishment to kill a dozen men. In addition to all that, however, it also contains one additional ingredient that separates it from the rest of the testosterone-laden pack--a genuine sense of pure cinematic style that cuts through all the cliches and gives the proceedings the kind of distinct personal touch that was almost completely absent from such largely anonymous recent shoot-em-ups as "Jack Reacher," "Gangster Squad" and "The Last Ride." .

That style is the result of the contributions of filmmaker Walter Hill, making his first foray in the director's chair since the underrated 2002 prison boxing drama "Undisputed." For those unfamiliar with the name (and if that is the case, then please take a moment or two to hang your head in shame), Hill started off as a screenwriter for projects by the likes of Sam Peckinpah ("The Getaway") before moving into the director's chair with the Charles Bronson boxing film "Hard Times." From that point he went on the make a series of wildly entertaining action films, including smash hits like "The Warriors" and "48 Hrs" and cult favorites like "The Driver" and his 1984 masterwork "Streets of Fire." that transcended the limitations of the genre with a combination of memorably brutal physical action and a distinctive narrative style that frankly and without irony embraced the structures and tenets of classical mythology and let his characters express and explain themselves almost entirely through their actions.

After hitting his commercial zenith with "48 Hrs" in 1982, Hill's career began to hit a rough patch. First came the major commercial failure of "Streets of Fire" (which had the misfortune to open the exact same week as "Ghostbusters" and "Gremlins" and two weeks after "Temple of Doom"), followed by the unfortunate commercial reception of two attempts to break out of his particular niche, the screwball comedy "Brewster's Millions" and the odd musical drama "Crossroads." A bigger problem came when the entire nature of the American action film began to change, first to favor big stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone (Hill has always been more comfortable with veteran performers or unfamiliar faces) and then to emphasize a more ironic approach that favored mindless brutality and cartoonish stories that neither said nor meant anything.

Hill attempted to go with the times but after churning out two of the weakest and least essential works of his career (the Schwarzenegger non-starter "Red Heat" and the contractual obligation known as "Another 48 Hrs") he decided that he would continue to go his own way and paid the commercial price for it with a series of strong and interesting works ("Trespass," "Geronimo," "Wild Bill" and the underrated "Yojimbo" remake "Last Man Standing") that failed to attract much attention even though they all play better today than the majority of what was ruling the box-office roost at that time. The final nail in the coffin came when he signed on to direct the ill-fated sci-fi thriller "Supernova," a fiasco that he wound up removing his name from entirely when it finally emerged after years of post-production tinkering to near-total audience disinterest. IIn the wake of that disaster, Hill moved to television and received acclaim for such projects as the pilot episode for "Deadwood" and the Western mini-series "Broken Trails" but with the exception of "Undeclared," he has not directed a theatrical feature until now.

The last couple of years have seen a number of once-popular directors from the 70's and 80's returning to filmmaking after long hiatuses but unlike such contemporaries as John Landis and John Carpenter, whose skills had rusted a bit over time, "Bullet to the Head" fits in so seamlessly with his best work that it hardly feels as if Hill has been away at all. On the one hand, it is a lean and mean action film with enough of the violent stuff to satisfy viewers who only want to see big sinewy guys shoot, stab and smack each other. At the same time, for those who are able to look beyond all the brutality on display, there are other things going on as well that help to elevate it above the usual blood-soaked silliness and into something actually worth mulling over afterwards. In other words, this is the kind of movie in which a character stops the proceedings to discuss the importance of the hero and what he symbolizes in classic mythology and then two guys try pound the crap out of each other with a pair of century-old fire axes.

The film stars Sylvester Stallone as Joe Bonomo, a mid-level hit man currently plying his deadly trade in New Orleans. He is good at his job (one pretty much has to be to last as long in that rarefied position as he has) and while he doesn't pretend pretend that he is in some noble profession, he nevertheless has a certain moral code that drives him--to quote another movie, he is the leper with the most fingers. He demonstrates this code early on when he and his hotshot partner (Jon Seda) take out a lowlife in a hotel room but he spares the hooker who was hiding in the shower during the killing. And yet, he is not in an honorable profession and while stopping off at a local zydeco bar to collect their fee and have a drink, the two are ambushed by the brutal Keagan (Jason Momoa) and while Bonomo survives the attack, his partner dies of his injuries. Convinced that they were set up, Bonomo vows to track down the people responsible in order to avenge his dead friend.

This quickly has him crossing paths with Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a Washington D.C. cop whose former partner, who was booted from the force in disgrace, was the guy that Bonomo just killed. Having both lost their partners at the hands of the same people, the two begin an uneasy partnership to uncover who ordered the killings and why--of course, their respective end games are slightly different, but never mind. Over the course of a couple of days, the two work their way up the ladder of Crescent City crime and eventually find themselves in pursuit of shady businessman Robert Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is working with shadier lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater as perhaps the least convincing Marcus Baptiste ever) to pay off cops and politicians as part of a land grab worth millions. Morel has been using Keagan as muscle but is himself beginning to grow wary of his hired goon--while the businessman is willing to broker deals in order to make things easier, Keagan is into his job not for the money has much as his sheer love of killing. Happily, Bonomo feels the same way, leading to the inevitable mano-a-mano finale in which the two go after each other with the aforementioned fire axes inside the empty warehouse/factory where films of this type always seem to arrive at in the final reel.

Although ostensibly adapted by Allessandro Carnon from a French graphic novel, "Bullet to the Head" contains so many elements that will feel familiar to Hill fans that it almost takes on the aura of a greatest-hits package at times. And yet, at no time does it feel as though he is simply going through the motions by falling back on his usual bag of tricks. The action scenes are staged and executed with a beauty and clarity that is all to rare in this overly digitized age in which noisy explosions and rapid-fire cutting are all the rage. The screenplay is fairly silly but it gets the job done and even demonstrates a flair for wit at unexpected moments. (After being told by his new partner that a properly executed police interrogation is a delicate construction that is almost like a musical performance, Bonomo replies "Let me break his legs and I'll give you a Who concert.") The byplay between Stallone and Kang is clearly meant to emulate the Nick Nolte-Eddie Murphy Dynamic in "48 Hrs) and while their barbed relationship is not especially original, the two actors play nicely off of each other--this is actually one of the more interesting performances that Stallone has given in quite some time. And as befitting a film steeped in the atmosphere of the Louisiana area (a milieu that Hill has explored in such previous works as "Southern Comfort" and "Johnny Handsome"), Hill tells his story in a manner that prefers its own oddball rhythms to the metronomic form of most other action films while still managing to clock in at a reasonably brisk running time.

There are sure to be many people who, thanks to both the title and the current sensitivity towards anything gun-related, there is likely to be a large contingent of people eager to decry "Bullet to the Head" as little more than an orgy of senseless violence without any point or purpose. However, Hill has never been interested in simply providing viewers with cheap gory thrills and this film is no exception. The film can be seen as a straightforward yarn and it works perfectly well on that level but If you look a little closer, it can also be read as Hill's barely disguised treatise on the state of the contemporary action film, a once-proud genre that has, in his eyes, been reduced to a mindless state in which the body count is the only thing that counts and concepts such morality and ethics have been tossed aside like so much litter.

In this reading, Bonomo can be read as an extension of Hill himself, a man from a different age for whom the acts of violence he delivers are both physically and emotionally painful and which come wrapped in a personal code of ethics that recognizes the brutality he delivers and ensures that when he does unleash it, there is a point to all of it. Meanwhile, Keagan and his affectless approach to killing anything that even remotely gets in his way is more representative of contemporary action filmmakers who cheerfully create movies with astronomical body counts but who too often fail to invest any of those on-screen deaths with any meaning. Lurking in the background, of course, is Morel, the moneyman who, not unlike the studio heads and producers that Hill has tangled with in the past, who ensconces himself away from the action and is content in his belief that money rules over everything and that anything--be it loyalty, friendship, ethics or a personal vision--is just another commodity that can be bought off at the right price.

"Bullet to the Head" has a couple of missteps--the film introduces the character of Bonomo's daughter (Sarah Shahi) and then gives her nothing to do but show some skin and get kidnapped in the final act and there is some sporadic narration by Stallone that largely goes against Hill's preference for explain things through action instead of words and which feels like a last-minute insistence from producers worried that his approach might be too subtle for the masses--and after finding the perfect moment on which to finish, it goes on for another couple of minutes thanks to an utterly needless epilogue. Nevertheless, this is a film that marks the long-awaited return of a master of cinema action after too long of an absence and the result is a hugely entertaining work of pop cinema of the sort that will play equally well with the multiplex crowds and art-house goons alike. Whether this will return Hill to a place of commercial prominence or instead go ignored by an audience unwilling or unable to accept his unique variations on a standard theme remain to be seen. As someone who has endure more brain-dead action potboilers than I care to remember, all I can say is that at long last, Walter Hill is back--and not a moment too soon

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