Friday, March 15, 2013

"B" is for Bullet to the Head

 On paper, there's no way that Bullet to the Head should be as disappointing as it is - Sylvester Stallone has been on a mostly successful run since returning to big screens with Rocky Balboa, and while you can debate the relative merits of The Expendables films, I'd venture to say that they're getting better as they go along. Teaming Stallone with Walter Hill (48 Hours, The Warriors, Red Heat, oh, and one of the writers of Alien) for a gritty revenge film just seems right. And then, for good measure, throw in Sung Kang (who I enjoyed in the last two Fast and the Furious movies), Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the bad guys, and what the hell, Jason Momoa as the heavy.

 Like I said, on paper it sounds like a winner; so what the hell happened? Well, Bullet to the Head isn't a total disaster, let me mention that right up front. It's a thoroughly average action movie unnecessarily saddled with a "buddy cop" template when it really needs to be about getting Stallone and Momoa on-screen together. That happens twice in the movie, and when it does, Bullet to the Head comes to life. Otherwise, it's a drawn-out bore.

  I hate to say it, but most of the problem is Kang's character, Detective Taylor Kwon. While Kang has an easygoing chemistry with Vin Diesel the rest of the F&F gang, he sucks the life out of Bullet to the Head. It's hard to tell if he just didn't get a handle on the character or if Kwan is just horribly written, because he comes off (at best) as incompetent at his job. When Kwon's partner is killed, he travels from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to track down the killer, and ends up forming an uneasy alliance with Jimmy "Bobo" Bonobo, a hitman whose partner was also killed by the same shady figures.

 Normally, you'd think they'd not get along and then find some common ground, but instead Kwon never gets past the first stage, where he's constantly threatening to arrest Jimmy on principle despite the fact that the criminal is much better at tracking these guys down than the cop is. Kwon's "detective" work consists of using his smartphone to call the station, have them look up a name, and then listen to someone give him exposition which he then relays to Stallone. This happens repeatedly in Bullet to the Head, usually while they're driving and almost always before or after an argument.

 My takeaway here is that in order to be good at following leads, all you need to be is literally anybody with a smart phone. Early in the film the NOPD makes him give up his gun (because this isn't his jurisdiction) but apparently the DCPD are perfectly willing to help him with a rogue investigation.

 Kwon is such a shitty detective that he can't figure out that the corrupt New Orleans police chief and detective working for African crime boss Morel (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) are tracking him and Jimmy with the GPS in his phone. Nope, he just keeps using it to advance us to the next lowlife that Jimmy needs to kill so that Kwon can get indignant. Mind you, this is after "Bobo" saves his life and helps him remove a bullet from a failed assassination attempt.

 Speaking of which, in the one touch I liked (until the movie ruined it), Kwon mistakes Lisa (Sarah Shahi), the tattoo artist who helps remove said bullet from his shoulder for Jimmy's girlfriend, when she is, in fact, his estranged daughter. Had the character relationship been limited to that, I'd be happy, but in the "cop / criminal" twist logic of this film, Lisa and Kwon have to get together., despite having no chemistry whatsoever.

 In fact, Kang and Stallone have no chemistry either, which really grinds everything down to a halt during the movie. When Stallone is on his own, or with Slater (as Morel's sleazeball attorney) and especially with Momoa, Bullet to the Head gets much better, but unfortunately those are but brief glimpses of a finer action film.

 Since I haven't really mentioned Jason Momoa, who is the best part of the ridiculous Conan the Barbarian, let's get back to the positives of Bullet to the Head and talk about him for a moment. So Momoa plays Keegan, a mercenary / hitman hired by Morel to take out anybody associated with a conspiracy the war criminal is trying to cover up. He's the one who kills Louis Blanchard (John Seda), Jimmy's partner. He also tries to kill Bonomo, but that doesn't quite work out.

 Unlike Kwon, we actually see Keegan develop a bit in the film from just being "the heavy." It turns out that he's respected by other mercenaries because he has a code of honor and he sticks to it, so when Morel screws him over from a moral standpoint, Keegan (SPOILER) kills the bad guys and leaves their warehouse hideout. That's right, our heroes don't kill the big bad guy, the bad guy's henchman does, and I don't even mind. Yes, it's a story flaw, but Momoa's Keegan is a much more interesting character, and it's clear all he really wants to do is finish the fight he started with Jimmy.

 And boy, do they ever. The only reason I'm even recommending Bullet to the Head is because the axe fight between Momoa and Stallone ("What are we, vikings?" quips Jimmy) is the high point of the movie. Keegan is so impressed that Jimmy can put up a fight that he starts smiling and at one point starts clapping. This is a show of respect between two tough motherfuckers that refuse to be the loser in this battle. Hell, Jimmy stabs Keegan in the throat with Louis' knife and THAT doesn't stop him from trying to score the killing blow. Nope - that would be Kwon shooting Keegan from across the room, breaking his "rule" about not killing "bad guys" when he can arrest them.

 It's the Die Hard / Lethal Weapon moment where Al / Murtaugh shoots the bad guy as they lunge forward which ties back to something they said earlier but in this instance because Kwon is such dead weight I was just pissed off that he killed the only interesting character not played by Stallone. Conversely, I didn't mind when Stallone killed Slater (SPOILER) after an interrogation scene because there was a least a joke there.

 So as not to sound like a sourpuss, here are a few more things I liked about Bullet to the Head:

 - I really enjoyed the set up and pay off of Kwon unloading Jimmy's gun while he was talking his daughter into helping remove the bullet. Later in the film, Jimmy goes into a bath house to confront another hitman who had a hand in getting his partner killed, and when the conversation leads to the inevitable "pull out the gun and shoot" moment, the look on Stallone's face when he hears "click" is priceless. It also allows for a protracted fight scene that is also pretty good.

 - The use of photos of Stallone throughout his career as mugshots (one of which looks like it's from First Blood) is actually a really nice touch in establishing his back story without having to spend too much time on it. Jimmy Bonomo is a career criminal, and with a few brief glimpses of Stallone as a younger man, we buy that a life on the wrong side of the law would result in the hardened asshole he plays in the movie.

 - Also, the opening "hit" that sets up what Jimmy and Louis do is short but effective. It's unexpected when they shoot the guy (who, by the way, is one of Kwon's former associates) in the chest but he doesn't die immediately but instead gets pissed off and tries to take them out, leading to the first (of many) instances of the title coming into play in the movie.

 One final note on the use of New Orleans as the backdrop for the story - it's not a major issue for me that Louisiana is offering credit to film crews in order to get them to shoot there, but having almost every action movie in the last five years in the Big Easy is starting to get a little repetitious. There's an assault on Jimmy's house (which is on a river) that ends in almost exactly the same way that the Jason Statham version of The Mechanic did, and that's not the movie you want to remind me of. Were it not clear to me that it couldn't be the same house (because, well, it had been blown up in The Mechanic), I might have assumed they used the same location. So it's cool that you can use New Orleans on the cheap, but let's try to vary it a bit, huh? If Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call Nicolas Cage could switch it up a little bit, I'd like to think Walter Hill could find different places to film.

 So yeah, this is a pretty average action movie that should have been better. There's no excuse for it not to be better, and the glimpses of a pretty great movie in there only compound the issue. If I were channeling my inner Rex Reed, I'd say "B is for Bullet to the Head? More like a C minus!" but that's beneath all of us. No wonder they killed Sung Kang in Tokyo Drift...

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