There’s a certain distasteful arrogance about Stallone movies, and Bullet to the Head is the perfect distillation of it. In the film, Stallone plays James Bonomo, a life-long low-level hitman who has been arrested 26 times and convicted twice (which we are needlessly reminded of on a few occasions throughout the course of the film). He’d double-crossed by the people who hired him to take out a crooked ex-cop, Bonomo’s hitman partner is killed, and through a nonsensical plot contrivance, Bonomo becomes an unwilling partner with an Asian cop, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang).
The dynamic between Bonomo and Kwon is representative of much of what is so irksome about the film. Kwon is younger, uses his smart phone to assist him in investigations, and — as an officer of the law — is inclined to question suspects to extract information. Bonomo, on the other hand, beats them until they submit, then shoots them in the head. That’s the gist of the entire film: Bonomo and Kwon work their way up the ladder of middle men, violently dispatching of each, until they arrive at the big bad (Jason Momoa). There’s no mystery or nuance to Bullet to the Head; it’s a series of brutally cold sequences that always end with a dead body or 14.
But it’s Bonomo — and Stallone’s — insistence that the old-school methods are superior that’s so infuriatingly bothersome. It’s not just in the way that Bonomo eschews technology. The dialogue is spare and corny, and the themes, the look, and the sound of the film are stubbornly 80s, right down to the “Mike Hammer” soundtrack. It revels in the era but fails to acknowledge how terrible the 80s were. The same joshing racism, sexism, and muscle-headed thuggery that marked Reagan-era action pics is celebrated here, not in an ironic sense, but in the sense that it was a better time, a time when bad Asian driver jokes were in vogue, when topless waitresses served the appetizers, and when Christian Slater could trot out his bad Nicholson impression without reproach.
Bullet to the Head completely ignores the last 30 years, or even the evolution of action hero from John McClaine to Jason Bourne. That’s fine, for nostalgia’s sake, but what I appreciate about modern action heroes is that violence is a means to an end; our heroes feel conflicted; and they are often resourceful. There’s no resourcefulness in Stallone flicks. It’s just point and shoot. The point Is the violence, not the motivations behind it.
Look: I like violence, particularly of the creative variety. But I prefer that it serve a purpose. In Bullet to the Head (which, seriously folks, is the worst possible title given the climate, and I’m certain it’s not playing well in places like Newtown or Aurora or Tuscon), the purpose is the violence. There’s not much plot contained within the splattered cranium of a non-dimensional sucker who is only the bad guy by virtue of not being Stallone. Stallone wants it that way. He and director Walter Hill seem to be saying, in the condescending way that racist old f*cks speak to rowdy kids before kicking them off their lawn: “Well, back in my day, sonny, story, character, and dialogue were unnecessary elements of a film. They only existed as an obstacle to overcome to get to what really counts: Chunky, spewing brain matter.” There are better lawns to play on than Stallone’s.