Hard on the heels of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the screen in “The Last Stand,” his old muscle-bound rival Sylvester Stallone continues the attempted comeback as an action-movie hero he started by reviving Rocky and Rambo and took into ensemble territory with “The Expendables” by taking on a new character, a hit-man named James Bonomo (Jimmy Bobo in the trade), in this effort from another veteran, Walter Hill. In “Bullet to the Head,” unfortunately, the pairing comes off more curdled nostalgia than cinematic excitement.
Set in the sin city of New Orleans, “Bullet” begins with Bobo and his partner Louis (Jon Seda) disposing of Greely (Holt McCallany), a dude partying in a hotel room. But when Jimmy encounters a prostitute showering in the guy’s bathroom, he spares her after he notices a peculiar tattoo on her back. Not long after, a big brute named Keegan (Jason Momoa) targets both men at a crowded bar where they’ve gone to get their payment for a job well done. Though his partner bites the dust, Bobo survives determined—like Sam Spade—to see to it the dead man gets justice.
But it’s not long before he’s saddled with Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), an out-of-town cop who happens to have been the partner of Greely, a detective gone bad and—unlike the locals—connects his death with Louis’. Bobo takes the wounded Kwon to be tended by his daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi), a tattoo artist with some medical training, before the duo follow the line of control from the fellow who originally hired Jimmy and Louis up the ladder to a sleazy lawyer named Baptiste (Christian Slater), who in turn points them to Robert Nikomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an African manipulator who’s out to make a killing in condos.
You know a movie is in trouble when the big reveal involves a shady real estate deal, and it’s even worse when the MacGuffin turns out to be a computer flash drive containing incriminating evidence about corrupt officials and massive bribes. But of course those are but excuses for a succession of action set-pieces involving lots of fists, guns and explosions. The presence of Shahi makes it inevitable that one plot twist will involve her becoming a damsel in distress—the only function she could possibly serve. And Kang’s participation insures that the script will follow the usual buddy-movie trajectory in which initial hostility will turn into a grudging camaraderie.
What might come as a surprise is that the final showdown between Bobo and Keegan involves not just punches and grunts, but a couple of big axes that are the villain’s weapons of choice. Whether one finds that a laudable departure from the ordinary or a ludicrous one will be a matter of taste.
What isn’t debatable is the fact that Stallone looks terrible, not because he’s aged poorly but because he’s obviously undergone so many treatments in an attempt to hold back the years. It hasn’t worked; Sly’s face looks as though it were made of wax rather than skin. Unhappily his acting abilities haven’t matured at all. And the supposed witticisms scripter Alessandro Camon, working from a French graphic novel, has provided him with are mots that could never be considered bon. (Perhaps they suffer in translation.)
To add to the picture’s problems, Kang is even worse—he comes across like an amateur called into service without any preparation, and his deer-in-the-headlights expression seems perfectly understandable. Shahi is pretty but inconsequential, Momoa a burly brute who nonetheless fails to register as truly scary, and Akinnuoye-Agbaje a grinning caricature. But certainly the most humiliating role is reserved for Slater, who’s definitely seen better days even in his run of failed television series. When a guy who used to be pegged as a leading man winds up tied to a chair and threatened by Sly Stallone, it’s clear his career has tanked.
“Bullet to the Head” doesn’t make much of the New Orleans scene. Lloyd Ahern II’s cinematography gives virtually everything a dark, murky appearance that carries no special ambiance. The remaining technical credits pass muster, but certainly make for an ugly-looking picture. Maybe that’s meant to match a narrative based on the premise that apparently everyone in a position of official authority in the Big Easy is utterly corrupt.
Actually Stallone had some success with his earlier comeback efforts. But if was hoping for a new franchise with Jimmy Bobo, he’s going to be disappointed. In that he’ll join anybody who goes to see this movie.