“Bullet to the Head,” Walter Hill’s first film since 2002’s “Undisputed,” is a triumphant return for one of the medium’s preeminent action masters. With the exception of the “48 Hrs.” movies, Hill’s directorial efforts aren’t smash hits, but they are oft-excellent, exciting genre pictures about men tangling with morality and mortality through hyper-competent use of force. This film, marketed primarily as a vehicle for star Sylvester Stallone, doesn’t transcend its place as a sharp-edged genre picture, but epitomizes it, fulfilling the wide set of expectations one has for a hard-R action movie.
Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo, a New Orleans hitman who abides by a self-imposed honor code, one of the outlaw variety that channels his viciousness toward criminals and away from civilians. After his partner (John Seda) is murdered, Bobo is thrust into a battle with a mercenary (Jason Momoa) and a crooked land developer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). He soon finds himself allied with Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), an honest Washington D.C. cop who sees Bobo as a stepping stone to a more prominent arrest.
The plot, to put it kindly, could fit comfortably on a cocktail napkin. Where “Bullet to the Head” thrives is in moments of character-driven masculinity and intense violence. Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alessandro Camon, gives serious consideration to the morality of the murderous characters such as Bobo and Keegan, as well as how they react when intersected with those not capable of the same kind of flippant disregard for life.
Here, as in his enthralling 1997 film “Last Man Standing,” Hill explores the killer’s capacity for moral integrity. The film’s most resonant thematic dynamic lies in the contrast between Bobo, a principled, world-weary professional to whom death is just part of the job, and Momoa’s Keegan, a frightening presence who relishes his own murderousness. It’s Kwon who serves as an audience surrogate, not particularly useful to the plot but identifiably aghast at the casually existential attitude these killers take toward their bloody profession. Even Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s criminal mastermind proves out of his depth when dealing with Bobo and Keegan, who value their respective principles over money. It’s a sign of enormous auteurial skill that Hill makes a story largely about evil men into a genuine meditation on the conduct of the damned.
Hill’s action scenes, heavy on thunderous gunfire, savage blades, and pulverizing blows, are models of spatial clarity, filmed without the now standard shaky-cam, framed and edited to emphasize both the brutality and excitement of combat. Similarly, Hill’s use of the film’s New Orleans setting, filled with shots of crumbling infrastructure and the region’s distinct architecture, sets an atmosphere tonally conducive to the story’s level of corruption and destruction, a fitting battleground for hard men.
Stallone, looking like a very fit 45-year-old at 66, finds one of his career-best roles in Bobo. As the film stylistically invokes the ‘80s action heyday, Bobo becomes an elder version of Stallone’s traditionally invincible, serious hero (in fact, Hill subtly acknowledges this with a montage of photos depicting Stallone over the years). Alongside the star, Momoa proves the most valuable supporting asset, a fearsome presence who imbues his character with boldness and a surprising intelligence that exudes exponentially more menace than what the script might have suggested. Kang, oft seen in “Fast and Furious” movies, proves the weak link, serving as an adequate audience proxy but reading his lines with a whine that makes one long for the rugged screen presence of Thomas Jane, the fine actor originally cast but tossed aside for reasons of ethnic appeal.
“Bullet to the Head” makes an interesting companion piece to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand,” as both 2013 films frame these reluctant senior citizens in ways supportive of their violent iconographic personas: Schwarzenegger’s self-aware charm vs. Stallone’s grim severity. It’s this kind of awareness that maximizes “Bullet to the Head”‘s value as great genre work, proving that Hill, at 71, is still a nearly indispensable director.