The tough guy renaissance is already drying up. The revival of macho 80s stars in action vehicles specifically designed to emulate the look and feel of the violent flicks these guys made a couple decades ago was never for everyone, but for a brief while, it was most certainly for me. Seeing Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, and Arnold Schwarzenegger back on the big screen in old-fashioned entertainment packages was a fun reminder of their muscled charisma. “The Expendables 2” even managed to comment, however bluntly, on the agelessness of cinema and the ridiculousness of that concept in terms of the action genre. But the party’s now over, boys.
It’s time to move on, at least if Bullet to the Head is any indication. The collective shoddiness that comes with this familiar territory is just piled too high this time around to be forgiven. Ugly lighting, jagged editing, a flimsy plot, and silly dialogue all combine with the usual attitude that this is true to the 80’s action flick experience, but for all its authenticity in terms of a certain brand of brawn, Bullet to the Head just can’t find a single original way to piece these parts together.
What authenticity there is at least arrives honestly in the hands of veteran director Walter Hill, who enjoyed his greatest cinematic success in the 80s with movies like buddy cop comedy “48 Hrs.” and colorful cult classic “The Warriors.” Hill’s direction here in Bullet to the Head feels like he just woke up from some stupor that lasted three decades, except it takes the whole movie to shake off his grogginess. Early on in the flick, Hill visually communicates a soon-to-be victim’s cocaine high with a recklessly swirling camera and strangely jarring cuts. Then he takes this style and applies it to the rest of the movie.
Stallone fills in the rest of the 80s nostalgia with another performance that fits his latest onscreen persona of the tattooed, underworld-dwelling assassin with a barely visible soft spot for some person or thing in his life. This time around, his name’s James and it’s his daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi) that he cares for. James admits that he was a pretty rotten dad, but he seems to have smoothed things over well enough that Lisa can appear on screen at opportune times to allow Hill and screenwriter Alessandro Camon to tick off several clichéd boxes in terms of female participation, ranging from a convenient love interest to a damsel in distress.
When it’s not about dysfunctional father and daughter, Bullet to the Head is focused on teaming Stallone with an overly stiff Sung Kang, whose cop character joins forces with a reluctant James to take down some bad guys who killed James’s partner. They quickly resort to just going through the motions. They get a lead, they rough him up, they bicker, Stallone does something violent, and then they move on to the next guy. It’s all relatively bland stuff, especially since the script never really builds the conflict in an interesting or even remotely surprising manner. Information flows pretty loosely here and the depiction of the ladder of powerful villains is lamely shaky since the characters (and we, as an extension of them) climb the rungs so easily until we arrive at the big predictable showdown. In a random nod to the 90s, Christian Slater represents one of those rungs, which at least says something about the desperation of action flick nostalgia.
There’s really not much more to the movie than these underwhelming, unoriginal plot points that have been pieced together to create a buddy cop action flick devoid of personality. Hill keeps the pace quick and the tone relatively light, so Bullet to the Head at least gets by without dragging too much. And Hill’s direction, while messy and grungy all the way through, is at least powered by a raucous energy that feels oddly at home in this kind of throwback thriller. Hill definitely knows how to dig up an old style, but he seems content to just leave it at that and not make any potentially invigorating adjustments.
Despite the dullness on display in Bullet to the Head, there’s still some pleasure in seeing Stallone perform. His bulging biceps still look like they mean business and his guttural growl that passes for a voice now sounds fascinatingly closer to the roar of an engine than any sound human vocal cords are expected to make. But if he’s going to insist on reliving his glory days in 80s themed projects, hopefully he’ll steer clear of such safe, simple fare and try a little harder to not let things get so stale next time around. Then again, Bullet to the Head is practically covered in mold, so I can’t help but feel that the tough guy renaissance has overstayed its welcome. I’m not necessarily saying it’s time to retire, either, but I’m guessing a long, nostalgia-free vacation wouldn’t hurt.