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.
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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.