The two mismatched heroes in “Bullet to the Head” can’t agree on how to treat a captured bad guy.
BY JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) wants to take him in.
Hit man Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) wants to take him out.
That’s the core dynamic at play in this excessively violent, undeniably entertaining action vehicle based on the graphic novel by Alexis Nolent. “Bullet to the Head” may be trashy, but it’s never dull.
Stallone is a big reason why. He’s a perfect fit for the material, wisely underplaying the role of a small-time career assassin with cold detachment and bitter humor. Heavily tattooed and walking as if his skeleton was replaced with a coat rack, the 66-year-old star embraces this fresh box-office opportunity for all it’s worth.
How long before there’s a reference to his character’s age? About a minute. After all, the film’s tagline is “Revenge never gets old.”
Following a sloppy mission, Stallone’s Bobo gets double-crossed by his New Orleans employers, resulting in the death of his partner (Jon Seda) at the hands of an elite mercenary (Jason Momoa of “Conan the Barbarian”). D.C. cop Kwon heads to the Crescent City to investigate the adjoining murders. There, he’s wounded in an assassination attempt and reluctantly saved by Bobo.
Bobo hauls the cop to gorgeous tattooist and former med student Lisa (Sarah Shahi), who’s not-so-shockingly revealed to be Bobo’s estranged daughter. After getting patched up, Kwon pairs with him to track down the wealthy killers responsible for the crimes.
“Sometimes you got to abandon your principles and do what’s right,” Bobo explains.
Even with its modern touches of CGI exit wounds and fast-motion-into-freeze-frame visual flourishes, “Bullet to the Head” has a throwback ’80s feel. That’s because Stallone isn’t the only significant name involved from that era.
Director Walter Hill became synonymous with mixing brutality and humor during a prolific decade of hits (“48 Hrs.,” “The Warriors”) and misses (“Streets of Fire,” “Extreme Prejudice”). Though this is Hill’s first feature since 2002’s “Undisputed,” he’s up to the challenge, keeping the pace snappy and the performances mostly crisp.
His biggest failing is coaxing a worthy portrayal out of Kang (Han in “The Fast and Furious” franchise). The actor looks cool, but he’s faint and inexpressive compared to the surrounding players. The material often swallows him up. (Thomas Jane was first cast in the role before producer Joel Silver reportedly ditched him in favor of using an ethnic actor.)
The screenplay by Alessandro Camon (an Oscar nominee for 2009’s “The Messenger”) attempts a crafty Tarantino-like structure. Yet it also proves susceptible to hokey cliches, like the villains (Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) tearing down ghetto housing to build condominiums as their evil master plan.
The movie might have been more respectable with a lower body count. The title does not lie; this is a phenomenally bloody effort that verges on overkill.
But the film also dedicates a reasonable amount of time to character-driven moments, which helps separate it from the mindless Jason Statham-esque action-thrillers it could have become.
Revenge never gets old … if the filmmaker and star do it right.