Break out your “We Are the World” albums, Nintendo Entertainment Systems and comically large mountains of coke, because 1985 is back and it’s brought Bullet to the Head with it! Watch in awe as Sylvester Stallone shares a car with an actual Asian person, blows some heads off and pretends it’s not implausible that a 66-year-old man could beat up the six-foot-five muscle pile we call Jason Momoa in a fair fight. Bring the kids! My dad took me to see Total Recall when I was eight years old and nothing bad happened to me, unless you count my career…
Yes, Bullet to the Head is exactly what it says on the tin, provided the tin says “Badass Cinema Throwback Without Shame.” (That’s a weird tin you have there.) Best of all, he wrote with an implied parenthetical question mark, Bullet to the Head isn’t even to trying to be “good” badass cinema. Red Heat was alright, I guess, but I’m not sure it’s the pinnacle of a long-lost genre, so beloved and unimpeachable that Bullet to the Head needed to reference it in the first few minutes with a line about spilling your coffee and looking like you pissed yourself. That’s a pretty low bar to set, and frankly, you really shouldn’t take half the film to reach it.
Bullet to the Head does get to the good stuff – if by the good stuff you mean exploding heads, fire axe fights and naked Eyes Wide Shut parties – but only after about 45 minutes of tedious set-up and character development cleverly disguised as uncomfortable “odd couple” banter. Is it really that funny that Stallone’s stick-in-the-mud cop partner isn’t white? Is anyone really still there, culturally? That schtick got old back when Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Belushi began every other sentence with, “In MY country…” And now its fingernails are dragging on the floor, and everyone’s too just a little too polite to suggest a nice, warm, relaxing mani-pedi. These dogs aren’t learning new tricks. Honestly, I think we’re pretty lucky that we’re toilet trained.
Sylvester Stallone stars as James Bonomo, a hitman who gets a sudden case of the conscience and against his better judgment allows a murder witness to live. You’d think that would be an important plot point, but it isn’t. Instead, he’s double-crossed for entirely different reasons, his partner gets killed, and that whole “witness” angle is barely mentioned again. Bonomo goes off for revenge on his late partner’s behalf and is accompanied by Taylor Kwon, a cop played by Fast Five’s Sung Kang who’s so straight-edged that he regularly reports in to his superior officer every hour, on the hour, long after learning that the bad guys are crooked cops. That subplot actually goes somewhere. Somewhere predictable.
Along the way they tangle with the monolithic Jason Momoa, who really could have carried this whole movie on his own, and an “Oh-How-The-Mighty-Have-Fallen” Christian Slater, who isn’t even granted the dignity of cameo status as a skeezy lawyer who is also – get this – skeezy. There’s also a hot tattoo chick who of course gets kidnapped and falls in love with one of the good guys. Bullet to the Head eats clichés for breakfast, and not as a metaphor for killing, but as actual sustenance. It never apologizes for that, and that’s both its saving grace and its greatest downfall. This movie isn’t smart enough to overcome its conventions, but it’s so forcefully conventional in such an old-fashioned, unbridled way that it actually operates better as a time machine than as a real film. If you’ve ever fantasized about going back to an age when Tango & Cash didn’t even seem weird, Bullet to the Head will definitely get you there.
It will also eventually get to a more-or-less satisfying finale in which everyone shoots each other and feels pretty good about it. I’ll say this for Bullet to the Head: it ends on a high note, making the stilted first half of the movie seem like a distant memory until you get home and actually start asking yourself if it was any good or not. I left the theater with a spring in my step, but I also spent 50% of the movie feeling like I was getting poked with springs. Bullet to the Head is alright, in the long run, but only if you think Cobra is one of the better Sylvester Stallone movies. Maybe it is. I’m not judging. So eat some lead, wash it down with axle grease and gimme fifty push-ups, because then you’ll be just about ready to watch Bullet to the Head. I mean that both literally and figuratively.