The Netflix preview image for Bullet to the Head features Sylvester Stallone and Jason Momoa swinging wildly at one another in a one-on-one axe fight. This image promises a much more entertaining movie. On the other hand, an action movie starring Stallone in 2012 could have been a lot worse.
Stallone’s career has some definite peaks and troughs. Coming off the brilliant surprise Rocky Balboa and the crowd-pleasing Rambo, he launched into the remarkably unremarkable Expendables and Expendables 2. Following the latter up with an action movie called ‘Bullet to the Head’ didn’t inspire much confidence, and neither the reviews nor the box office receipts did it any favours.
It ended up being Stallone’s worst opening weekend gross in 32 years, failing to make up half of its $40 million budget. But while this is by no means a top tier Walter Hill project, or a top tier Stallone film, many of its apparent failures seem to me to be a deliberate evasion of the tropes of the buddy cop sub-genre.
First of all, there’s the relationship between Bobo (Stallone) and Kwon (Sung Kang). One’s a clean cop, the other is a dirty hitman, we know the drill: their principles will clash, but they’ll slowly build a friendship and get on the same page, realising that deep down they’re not that different. Many remarked that there was no chemistry between the two actors, that the characters didn’t seem to like each other, and that’s true. But rather than a failure, it looks to be a deliberate move. Speaking to LA Times, Hill said:
“I thought it was a kind of dramatic contrast that would fuel the thing. People always jump on you about buddy movies. Mine are anti-buddy movies. They don’t like each other. They’re not going to like each other. The most they’re going to achieve by the end is a kind of grudging respect. I’m just comfortable with that. It seems to be an inherently more dramatic situation than if they’re friendly and they get along and respect each other.”
Bobo and Kwon never get on the same page, and Bobo’s dedication to his cynical take on the world is frequently challenged, but never changed – and neither is Kwon’s by-the-book take, either. Which brings us to Stallone’s character.
There’s a running theme you can find with Stallone’s lead roles, especially as he’s gotten older. He often plays someone put down by others who ridicule him for being out of the game, or having (often “old school”) principles that don’t fit in with their view of the world. He sticks by them, and without really changing, proves that he was right all along.
So, does Stallone show himself to be the better man, kicking the ass of the new action star on the block, proving that he still has what it takes? Well, he sure gets a few licks in the final fight with Jason Momoa’s Keegan, but he barely gets through it alive, and only thanks to the help of the man he spends the whole movie dismissing.
I was fully expecting the same from Bullet to the Head, but Bobo’s diatribes against cops, the law system, and complete disinterest in the moral implications of violence, is never really celebrated. He’s mean, slightly cruel, and is never given a pat on the back about it. By the end, his reluctant partner still wants them to answer for their crimes, and we’re right there with him. And when the woman 34 years Stallone’s junior turns out to be his daughter and not his love interest, it’s a surprise for us too, given how this sort of movie usually turns out.
Even the antagonist, a mercenary played with relish by Momoa, subverts expectations. Bobo is given a personal reason to fight Keegan, while he is clearly just a pawn in the much larger political game of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s crooked developer. But just as we near the climax of the film, Momoa turns on all his allies, merely because he doesn’t get to kill Bobo – a man he failed to finish off earlier. It’s as if he grows bored of the standard white collar crime we come to expect from these movies, and clears the table completely.
Bullet to the Head is by no means a subversive, or even particularly original film, but it is willingly at odds with its own genre. The brutal and immersive action set pieces (the aforementioned axe fight has some brilliant choreography) don’t exactly elevate a fairly average movie, but it definitely shouldn’t be written off as just another action movie.