"Bullet to the Head"

Maybe it only seems like Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone worked together before "Bullet to the Head," a kickass actioner driven by personality rather than plot.

Maybe it only seems like Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone worked together before “Bullet to the Head.” After all, the director and the iconic action star sound like an ideal pairing, and nothing here will dissuade fans of their suitability as a team. Stallone may tinker with everything on his outside, but (who’d a thought?) it’s the inside that counts, and by now, playing a tough hitman with a strong ironic edge comes as natural to him as gunplay does to a Hill pic. Warner Bros. release should generate a decent chunk of change following an early February opening.

To claim the dialogue is written to comfort the narratively challenged would be mere quibbling, as the pic’s chief pleasure lies in its store of funny lines, which Stallone tosses off with genuine brio. Scripter Alessandro Camon is a long way from “The Messenger,” which is just fine, since “Bullet to the Head” knows and enjoys the kind of film it is: a kickass actioner driven by personality rather than plot. The only real error of judgment was pairing Stallone with Sung Kang (of the “Fast and Furious” franchise), which is like serving a jumbo-everything cheeseburger next to a poached chicken sandwich with lettuce (hold the mayo). Sure, they’re supposed to be mismatched, but Kang can’t quite hold his own.

James Bonomo, aka Jimmy Bobo (Stallone), is a jaded hitman with a long rap sheet and little tolerance for the law. He and partner Louis (Jon Seda) bump off corrupt ex-cop Greely (Holt McCallany), which results in Louis getting whacked by former mercenary Keegan (Jason Momoa, “Game of Thrones,” “Conan the Barbarian”). Det. Taylor Kwon (Kang) thinks there’s a link between the two bodies and tracks down Bobo, who saves the cop from an assassination attempt by other police officers on the take.

Kwon is wounded in the skirmish, so Bobo brings him to tattoo artist and one-time med student Lisa (Sarah Shahi, decorated and decorative), who’s also, no surprise, the tough guy’s daughter. Once mended, Kwon and Bobo reluctantly team up to get answers, with the trail leading to hotshot lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater). At a costume party thrown in to provide the requisite T&A (neither plot nor atmosphere are strong suits), the odd couple learns that Keegan and Baptiste work for Robert Nkomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an unscrupulous developer looking to make a killing off a real-estate project.

If the idea of a ruthless condo builder sounds less than terrifying on paper, it’s equally uninspired onscreen, but Hill and Camon aren’t especially interested in the whys and wherefores. Like the costume party scene, and an earlier half-hearted chase sequence through a crowded New Orleans street parade, the explanations are mere filler designed to link violent explosions with more important buddy elements, which give the pic some kind of distinction. A fair amount of jokiness is derived from the gap in tech knowledge between Luddite Bobo and smartphone-toting Kwon, though unsurprisingly, given both star and helmer, it’s not whether you can download a database but how you wield a knife that matters here.

In the latter department, Stallone and Momoa are the winners, culminating in a well-choreographed axe battle that allows auds the satisfaction of a ringside seat for an action nerd’s match made in heaven: Rocky vs. Conan. Otherwise, Stallone is like a knowing mentor to Kang’s lightweight, generously allowing him his moments but then taking charge of the screen; one can almost hear him say, in that extraordinary voice (more boulders than gravel), “Move over kid, here’s how it’s done.” That goes for the zingers as much as the punches, equally potent and satisfying.

“Bullet” is Hill’s third film set in the Big Easy (he even revisits the old power station he shot in “Hard Times”), though the lensing merely showcases the city in a generic “CSI: Miami” way, furthering the sense that the helmer’s engagement with the project lies largely with his star. Editing and music push forward the action without inducing dizzy spells or headaches.

Bullet to the Head

Production

A Warner Bros. release and presentation, in association with Dark Castle Entertainment, IM Global, of a Millar Gough Ink/Emjag, After Dark Films production. Produced by Alexandra Milchan, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Kevin King-Templeton. Executive producers, Stuart Ford, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Deepak Nayar, Steve Squillante, Joel Silver, Courtney Solomon, Allan Zeman, Steve Richards, Stuart Besser. Co-producers, Robert J. Dohrmann, Aaron Auch, Jessica Alan. Directed by Walter Hill. Screenplay, Alessandro Camon, based on the graphic novel "Du plomb dan la tete" written by Matz (Alexis Nolent), illustrated by Colin Wilson.

Crew

Camera (color), Lloyd Ahern II; editor, Tim Alverson; music, Steve Mazzaro; production designer, Toby Corbett; costume designer, Ha Nguyen; art director, Kelly Curley; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital/SDDS), Lee Orloff; sound designer, Dane A. Davis; supervising sound editor, Mark Larry; re-recording mixers, Tom Ozanich, Terry Rodman; special effects coordinator, John S. Baker; visual effects supervisors, Glenn Cote, Lubo Hristov, Mark Dornfeld, Danny Braet, Gregory Liegey, Don Lee, Phil Feiner; visual effects, Travis Baumann, Christopher Custodio, Christov Effects and Design, Custom Film Effects, Freestyle VFX, Lola VFX, Method Studios, Pixel Playground, PJF Prods.; fight choreographer, Don Tai; stunt coordinator, J.J. Perry; assistant director, Milos Milicevic; casting, Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani, JC Cantu. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (noncompeting), Nov. 14, 2012. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Jimmy Bobo (James Bonomo) - Sylvester Stallone
Taylor Kwon - Sung Kang
Lisa Bonomo - Sarah Shahi
Robert Nkomo Morel - Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Keegan - Jason Momoa
Marcus Baptiste - Christian Slater
With: Jon Seda, Holt McCallany, Brian van Holt, Weronika Rosati, Dane Rhodes, Marcus Lyle Brown, Andrew Austin-Peterson, Paul Etheredge, Robert Cavan Carruth, Louis Michot, Andre Michot, Lacey Minchew, Dominique Duvernay, Dana Gourrier, Robert Larriviere, Don Yesso, Douglas M. Griffin, Tiffany Reiff.

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