By Chaz Lipp

After a carefully orchestrated comeback that first saw the return of his most beloved characters (Rocky Balboa in 2006, Rambo in 2008) followed by a brand new franchise (The Expendables 1 and 2), Sylvester Stallone is just an actor again. Bullet to the Head is the first time Stallone has starred on the big screen without doing double or triple duty (as writer, director, and/or producer) since Get Carter way back in 2000.

The good news is that despite having sat on the shelf for a year, Bullet to the Head is a lean and mean action film that gives Stallone a chance to portray an uncompromising, take-no-prisoners anti-hero. Director Walter Hill (helming his first theatrical feature in a decade) keeps the pacing tight, with nary a minute wasted. We open with a scene of disorienting chaos as Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) sits in a car at gunpoint. Suddenly the driver’s side window shatters, another gun is drawn, and Kwon’s assailant receives the first of many bullets to the head fired throughout the film. The man with the gun is James Bonomo, better known as Jimmy Bobo (Stallone).

The story abruptly jumps back to show us the events leading up to this explosive opening. Bobo is a brutally efficient hitman who, along with his partner Louis (Jon Seda), takes out a scumbag, coke-head cop in a hotel room. Possibly showing signs of softness, Bobo spares the life of a hooker who witnessed the whole scene from the bathroom. Not long after, Louis is brutally stabbed to death by a hulking strong-arm man named Keegan (Jason Momoa). When Detective Kwon first arrives in New Orleans (where the film was shot with cool efficiency by cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II), he has also recently lost his partner. He tracks down Bobo after discovering the same crooks that killed his partner also killed Louis.

From that point on, Bulletbecomes kind of a buddy picture, with Kwon the cop striking an uncomfortable alliance with Bobo the crook. To the film’s credit, neither man ever becomes especially comfortable with the other. There are no real bonding moments (some of the trailer’s lighter moments have been excised) as they choose to keep each other at arm’s length. The focus remains on their common goal of working their way up the villainous ladder. Keegan is merely a hired gun, part of a much bigger crime network led by Robert Nkomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Kwon wants to do things more or less by-the-book, while Bobo is willing to use any means necessary.

If the story itself, based on the Alexis Nolent-written graphic novel Du Plomb Dans La Tete, isn’t terribly imaginative on its own, Hill keeps it moving with gritty, violent action and flashes of dark humor. As you may have guessed, there’s not much reason to think too hard about the plot. The 91-minute running time glides by largely on the strength of Stallone’s still-intact charisma, with able supporting work by Kang, Momoa, Akinnuoye-Agbaje , and an underused Christian Slater (as mid-level Morel soldier Marcus Baptiste, who throws a sex-themed party that provides some gratuitous—though not unwelcome—nudity). Sarah Shahi puts an offbeat spin on the role of Bobo’s daughter Lisa, a tattoo artist who moonlights as a triage doctor. It’s not surprising when Lisa finds herself in peril, but it’s an essential plot point that amps up Stallone’s intensity level as Bobo is suddenly not only avenging Louis but attempting to rescue his daughter.

Another consistently noteworthy element that deserves special notice is the swampy, blues rock score by Steve Mazzaro. The slow, heavy beats, laced with sizzling harmonica licks and distorted guitar solos, add a distinct flavor that suits the film’s “underbelly of New Orleans” setting.

Bullet to the Headisn’t a complex film. It’s a revenge-based action flick that offers bone-crunching thrills (including a climatic axe battle), bloody shoot-outs, T&A, and plenty of tersely funny one-liners. You most likely already know whether or not this is up your alley. As a dyed-in-the-wool Sylvester Stallone fan, I relish the opportunity to see him dominating a film with such confident swagger. I generally prefer films in which he at least had a hand in the writing, as opposed to some of his more generic acting-only outings (I’m thinking specifically of some of his dour mid-‘90s films like The Specialist and Assassins). I’m happy to say this one is easy to recommend to Stallone buffs and well worth seeing if you have a taste for no-frills action.

(Photos: Warner Bros.)

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Chaz Lipp

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