‘Bullet to the Head’ Review
In 1982, Walter Hill directed ’48 Hrs.,’ with Nick Nolte as a loose cannon cop and Eddie Murphy as a fast-talking criminal. The oil-and-water chemistry worked, the movie was a hit, and an entire genre — the buddy cop movie — was born. Hill has had a long a varied career in Hollywood, directing tough, lean action movies and Westerns and producing the ‘Alien’ franchise, but ’48 Hrs.’ and the myriad imitators it birthed will always be his biggest legacy. That fact alone makes his new movie, ‘Bullet to the Head,’ interesting, since it’s Hill imitating himself, with his first return to the genre since 1990’s ‘Another 48 Hrs.’ The mixed results probably won’t inspire a resurgence of buddy cop movies, but they’re not terrible either, with enough Walter Hill flair to make some moments quite memorable, even if the movie as a whole has its problems.
The mismatched buddies this time are sort of an inversion of ’48 Hrs;’ now the gruff rule-breaking older cop is the gruff, rule-demolishing older hitman named Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone), and the fast-talking criminal is the fast-talking, tech-savvy D.C. cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang). In an effectively noirish opening sequence, Jimmy and his partner Louis (Jon Seda) kill a target, but not long after, Louis is killed by a towering man with a knife (Jason Momoa). He tries to kill Jimmy too, but he survives and swears revenge. The next day, Kwon arrives in town, looking for the man Jimmy murdered — who turns out to be Kwon’s ex-partner. Through a twist too satisfying to spoil here, Jimmy and Taylor and thrown together, and agree to set aside their differences until they find the men who set them both up. They’ve got to kill their enemies before they kill each other, and assorted other buddy cop cliches.
The setup is standard but it’s crisply directed by Hill, whose work is always marked by clean, economic shooting and cutting and an inherent knack for working over an audience. That’s all evident from the very first frame of the movie — when a bullet appears out of nowhere, jolting you in your seat as it slams through the Warner Brothers logo. Stallone, his voice registering a few octaves below a subwoofer, mumbling in voiceover about how he has no women and trusts no one in order to stay in “the game,” seems like an ideal Hill hero: tough as nails, mad as hell, serious as a heart attack. And there’s a bit of that old Nolte-Murphy antipathy when he and Kang first get together. This, we think to ourselves, looks very promising.
Quickly, though, things turn sour. A buddy cop movie needs two equal and opposing forces; ’48 Hrs.’ doesn’t work if Nolte overpowers Murphy, which is exactly what happens here. Stallone dominates everything; scene after scene serves only to make him look like a badass genius while making Kung look like a dopey wimp. Every time they get into a tough spot, he demands they take care of it “his way.” When Kwon tries to intrude, his meddling inevitably puts both their lives at risk, and they survive only through the strength, courage, and ingenuity of Jimmy.
All the while Stallone keeps cracking jokes at Kang’s expense — they’re funny at first, but the script and the wisecracks are so heavily weighted in his favor, that it quickly moves past chummy bickering to obnoxious bullying. Kang’s part amounts to little more than a guy who follows Stallone around, looking things up on his cell phone whenever the plot demands, and absorbing his insults the rest of the time. Kang’s been great in other movies, but here he comes off more like a sidekick than a full-fledged partner, which takes a lot of the fun out of things.
The bright spot here, to my surprise, is Jason Momoa, who makes an utterly convincing heavy in his role as the enforcer to the main villain, a New Orleans power broker whose ultimate motivations, as they’re finally revealed, don’t make a whole bunch of sense to me, but whatever. Momoa, who didn’t bring much to the recent ‘Conan the Barbarian’ remake is all kinds of scary — and even kind of charming — as this ruthless mercenary named Keegan, and his big fight with Stallone — with axes, for reasons which don’t make a whole bunch of sense either, but whatever, axes are awesome — is a genuine highlight. Kang, of course, spends that entire fight on the sidelines, and when he gets one big moment to be a hero, it’s immediately undercut by another big Stallone moment which makes him look weak yet again.
As a child of the ’80s, I do get a kick out of seeing Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger back on the big screen, grunting and sweating their way through these throwback action movies. Stallone’s a few decades removed from his glory days, but he hasn’t lost too many miles an hour on his fastball; in a scene like the axe fight he can still bring it (or at least Hill can cut around him well enough to make it look like he can). Nonetheless, seeing Momoa really tear into his henchman role with charisma and menace suggests it might be getting towards that time where the older generation starts letting these younger guys get more of the spotlight, instead of casting them in movies only to defeat and diminish them in order to prop up their fading careers. Make Kang and Momoa (or better yet: Momoa and The Rock) the partners in a movie like this, make them true equals, and give them another 48 hours to solve a mystery. Then you might see a movie good enough to inspire more buddy cop imitators.‘Bullet to the Head’ is in theaters now.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’