About as unreconstructed as it's possible to get, Walter Hill's first feature in 10 years, "Bullet to the Head," finds the veteran action director utterly mired in the tropes of the '80s R-rated action film. And we enjoyed the hell out of it. With nothing but the Himalayan crags of Sylvester Stallone's face to suggest the last 30 years of filmmaking ever happened, Hill has — crafted seems the wrong word — rammed together an action movie in which the plot is laughable, the quips are quippy and the action nasty — no graceful, balletic, parkour bullshit here, just guns, fists, explosives and, gloriously, axes. This is gristly, muscly action, Stallone's aging sinews standing up remarkably well to the task of dispatching opponents fleshily against concrete, steel and marble surfaces when he's not simply shooting them. There is absolutely nothing defensible about the movie's leering treatment of women, or the casual racism played frequently for laughs, or even the utter nihilism of its hero, but it's so patently unrepentant, and so oddly even-handed in having all of its characters seem mindbendingingly dumb, that it kind of gets a pass.
This is a film in which the detective using a smartphone is cause for comment; in which the first of two maguffins is a paper file, full of burnable paper evidence, and the second is a new-fangled gadget called a "flash drive," which no one thinks to copy, or even that such a thing might be possible. This is a film in which, to indicate the successful conclusion of the story, the hero drives off in a new Ferrari. This is a film set in a New Orleans in which Katrina is never referred to, indeed, it's possibly set in an America where 9/11 hasn't happened, and political correctness is an unknown concept. But despite the film's utterly gratuitous violence (no sex, though!), there's a strange kind of innocence on display here. We're not anywhere real, we're in '80s-action-movie-land — bad guys cackle, take cocaine, and throw masked parties where naked girls tango with each other. They are either muscled henchmen (like Jason Momoa, my sun and stars) or suited businessmen (like Christian Slater…I know! Christian Slater!), but either way they're instantly identifiable, and despite all the fronting, dumb as posts. All cops are corrupt except one, and the only people our hero hit man kills are bad people, so that's okay. To reiterate, this film feels like one you discover late at night and watch for ten minutes before remembering you've already seen it, and yet we still kinda loved it.
Hold on to your hats, we're going to attempt a plot summary: Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) is a hitman whose partner is killed after they both have killed this other guy who they'd been hired to kill. Because he turns out to be an ex-cop, Detective Kwon (the extremely handsome Sung Kang of "Fast Five") is sent from DC to investigate, and decides to team up with Bobo, who saves his life and introduces him to his comely daughter (Sarah Shahi). Mercenary Keegan (Momoa) is the guy being sent to do the bad guys' (Slater and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) killings, causing a lot of bloody mists and arterial spray, all while Kwon and Bobo form a fragile alliance that mostly consists of Stallone calling the Korean detective a bunch of pet names like "Confucius," "Oddjob" and "Kato." 90% of the exposition is delivered over the telephone by an anonymous female voice who tells Kwon where the next bad guy is, so that the two can bicker in the car on the way there before Stallone goes in and kills him. And then the climax happens in, where else, an abandoned power plant, which may look familiar because all abandoned power plants look pretty similar, or because, as our press notes tell us, it's the exact same abandoned power plant where Hill shot his very first film, 1975's "Hard Times" with Charles Bronson. Ah, memories.
Based on the graphic novel "Du Plomb Dans La Tete" by Matz, the screenplay was, unbelievably enough, written by Alessandro Camon who also wrote "The Messenger." We assume he realized, wisely, that this is not a film where people care about consistent characterization or narrative coherence, and his job was pretty much to get the guys from killing A to killing B with as little fuss as possible. Because it is all about the killings, aside from a few nice scenes between Bobo and Kwan in the car, in which Stallone gets to be funny. It is all about the gloriously throwback violence, the astonishingly consequence-less shootings and murders and blowings up and stabbings and vehicular manslaughters. And Hill handles these like the pro he is; perhaps he's a dinosaur, but he's a dinosaur who can still kick a head in real good. When the action climax happens, after all the pyrotechnics before, between two muscly guys who throw down their guns in favor of a pair of convenient axes, and that climax still delivers, then you know you're watching the work of a special, if very specific, talent. A whole lot of this grade is probably sentiment, because, Lord it is extraordinarily silly on almost every level, but we remember the '80s, and it was genuinely fun to head back there for a while. Hill, "you had me at 'fuck you'. " [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the Rome Film Festival.