No matter how you cut it, Sylvester Stallone will always enjoy a place as one of the premiere action stars of the '80s and, as evidenced by the success of 'The Expendables' franchise, he seems to be maintaining a firm and disturbingly veiny grip on the collective imagination of what is also likely an increasingly older-male, machismo-loving demographic.
After 'The Expendables' caught on and began joylessly riffing on aging '80s action stars and their bare-knuckle brand of brawns-over-brain entertainment – even spawning a cameo-stuffed sequel that lacked the nostalgic appeal of the first – it seemed as though Hollywood, and its collection of once mighty box office titans, were primed for something of a resurgence – albeit in the form of vaguely self-referential flicks that banked their success almost entirely on the novelty of seeing old dudes struggle to do what they once did with ease.
In that sense, 'Bullet To The Head' doubles the pleasure, by bringing director Walter Hill and Stallone together for the first time, as two icons of '80s action cinema, to create the latest anachronistic, irony-free slugfest, attempting to capitalize on audience reminiscence by reminding them of movies that remain an influential part of the pop culture landscape, yet recent iterations have struggled to transition into the sensibilities of modern cinema.
Adapted from the French graphic novel 'Du Plomb Dans La Tete' by Alexis Nolent, 'Bullet To The Head' puts Stallone in familiar Walter Hill territory, as a hit man tracking his partner's killer finds himself reluctantly paired with an ambitious, new-school Washington, D.C. detective played by Sung Kang ('Fast & Furious' series). Together the pair form the prototypical buddies familiar to Hill's past efforts like '48 Hours' and 'Red Heat,' but without any of humorous interplay that made those odd couples so much fun to watch.
To the film's credit, however, Stallone's Jimmy Bonomo is that rare killer-for-hire who isn't desperate to escape his occupation and atone for the sins of his past; instead, Jimmy's so comfortable with who he is – thanks to the belief every job is helping take out society's trash – even his semi-estranged daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi) knows all about his profession, and she doesn't raise an eyebrow in judgment when admitting this. For his part, Det. Taylor Kwan (Kang) is willing to team up with a wanted killer in order to catch the larger, more deadly criminal that's behind everything – which, in this case, is 'Lost' star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, as an over-the-top, corrupt businessman with his eyes set on some soon-to-be lucrative New Orleans real estate. Joining him is Christian Slater, as a greasy real estate lawyer with a penchant for costume parties and Jason Momoa, as a gigantic thug in the same business as Jimmy, who kills less for the money than for the pleasure it brings him.
The film's central characters live primarily in a morally gray area where the ends seem to justify the very violent means – as long as it's the really bad guys who ultimately do the dying. And while Hill and Stallone manage to present some aspects of themselves for which they will always be remembered, those attributes do little in terms of elevating the script beyond its video game sensibilities – in that Stallone and Kang shuffle from one objective to the other, until they reach the final boss battle – and a frenetic axe fight makes a paltry substitute for the thinly drawn characters on-screen.
There is no subtle, acknowledging wink or self-referential presentation as in 'The Expendables,' and it feels like that could have helped, as the movie lacks anything regarding self-awareness. In this case, the problem with 'Bullet to the Head' is it's not terribly present; in addition to being generic, it feels like it emerged from a package hermetically sealed in the 1980s and reopened in 2013, remaining largely ignorant of the three decades that have since passed.
This is the type of film tailor-made for the increasingly tired assertion that everyone should "just enjoy it for what it is" – which presupposes that there was no chance 'Bullet to the Head' could ever be good, or capable of achieving some higher standard, so why bother trying, right?
But these films can be enjoyable for something more than simple nostalgia or the novelty of watching old men do battle with people half their age. What this movie, and others in the aging-action-hero brand of entertainment (i.e., 'The Last Stand' – which I actually like more than this), lacks is any semblance of genuine reinvention, to go along with a celebration of the mythology these muscle-bound men have created for themselves in movies that often earnestly portrayed them as being larger than life.
There are plenty of elements here offering a wistful reminder of a bygone era, but none elevate the product to the point it feels like anything other than a rehash of everything that's come before.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Bullet To The Head' hails from Warner Bros., as a 25GB Blu-ray with a DVD + Ultraviolet package in the standard two-disc keepcase. The disc starts off with an advertisement describing how Ultraviolet works and then a full-length trailer for 'Gangster Squad.'
'Bullet To The Head' comes with a very nice looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, which presents what is essentially a very gritty and dark film with a surprisingly bright, vivid, and colorful image that certainly livens-up the proceedings up quite a bit. Flesh tones are even and look great no matter the actor's natural skin tone – even though Stallone tends to run a little red these days. In addition to the colorful presentation, offering a delightfully vibrant depiction of a decadent New Orleans, there is also a fantastic level of fine detail present throughout the film. What's more, as the story unfolds in a variety of different settings and times of day, the fine detail remains constant whether the actors are hanging out underneath an overpass in the middle of the day, or sneaking around an adult's only party in the wee hours of the night.
Along with the fine detail, there is also a great sense of depth in the image, which is helped by the high contrast that produces deep, inky blacks and a consistently well-balanced white level that keeps things from looking washed out or hazy. The rich black levels are further enhanced with excellent shadow delineation and zero evidence of banding anywhere in the picture.
The movie appears to have been shot on film, but grain is virtually unnoticeable anywhere on the picture. Overall, this is an impressive transfer for a film that was certainly shot with a lot of attention to detail.
As most action movies are wont to do, 'Bullet To The Head' makes full use of its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, with a mix that turns everything from dialogue, explosions and gunfire, to the satisfying thud of a well-timed punch and, yes, even the clacking of axe handles as they slam into one another with a distinctive report. Most of the dialogue – even Stallone's patented marble-mouthed vocalizations -- sounds superb. Actors come through clearly in every situation and all the dialogue is well balanced against other considerable elements like the film's bluesy score or the boisterous sound of explosions and other staples of the action movie genre.
Most of the action takes place in closed quarters, so that means there's plenty of echoes and reverberations for the sound system to pump out through various channels and the mix manages to handle it all quite well. Bullets not entering into people's heads bounce off walls and other fixtures with a resounding clang or heavy thud, while explosions rock with deep levels of LFE. The rear channels pick up a great deal of atmospheric sound, such as the din of a busy bar, but also ricocheting bullets or bits of exploding houses and even the odd piece of conversation, as well.
For action-lovers this mix will not disappoint; it is more than ready to handle everything Stallone and company can throw at it, while maintaining a proper balance so that the viewer is not checking the volume between lulls in the action. If there was one downside, it's that the sound drop off a tad at random places in the very beginning of the film, but it is only noticeable in a few early scenes and doesn't really impact the overall quality of the disc.
Action movies have come a long way since their star-powered heyday in the '80s. For one thing, most are now centered around comic books or superhero properties that were once thought of as mere kids' stuff, and not in the same league as the R-rated shoot 'em ups populated with likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis and anyone else you can think of. 'Bullet to the Head' is certainly of that R-rated ilk, and although it packs a mean punch, there's nothing new in its wind up or delivery. This will likely have a decent life on Blu-ray as Stallone's name is still likely to garner some interest even in casual filmgoers. And for those who were already sold on it, they will enjoy the disc's superb picture and sound. The supplements are definitely lacking on this one, but all in all, it's worth a rental.