Tough guys with a code. Punishing bare-knuckled brawls. Broken glass. Some bluesy licks from Ry Cooder. These are the elements of a Walter Hill action movie, from great early films like The Long Riders and Southern Comfort to his paradigmatic buddy team-up 48 Hrs. to recent effects like the mistreated Undisputed and his new two-fister, Bullet To The Head. The non-Cooder scores in later Hill movies—like Steve Mazzaro’s, here—are still Cooder-esque, but beyond such minor variations, little has changed about a filmmaker who makes modern Westerns with brute efficiency. The X-factors tend to be the script and the performances, and those elements largely betray him in Bullet To The Head, which is a perfunctory exercise whenever Hill isn’t busying himself with gun battles, ax fights, and other mano-a-mano confrontations. He can only do so much.
Based on Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel, Bullet To The Head turns on the reliable old Western premise of a white hat and a black hat becoming temporary allies. Working with Hill for the first time—which is incredible, given the exalted stature of both men in ’80s action—Sylvester Stallone stars as a hit man who reassures himself that the guys he’s taking out are even sleazier than the guys who hire him. All that changes when his employer sends a ruthless goon (Jason Momoa) to wipe him out and Stallone makes his way down to New Orleans to have his revenge. Coming along for the ride is Sung Kang, a Washington D.C. detective who’s willing to explore some legal gray areas if it means taking down the Big Boss.
Though crudely wrought, the moral equivocation that allows Stallone, Kang, and Momoa to do their dirty business gives Bullet To The Head a little nuance: Stallone figures the men he kills have it coming, Kang throws back a small murdering fish to catch a big murdering fish, and Momoa’s motivations so confuse the higher-ups that they can’t really trust him, either. But too much of the film is devoted to the nonexistent buddy chemistry of its leads, who snarl and mumble incoherently, and a warmed-over New Orleans villain straight out of Chief Wiggum P.I. Hill works his usual magic on the big confrontations—the punches hit so hard that the sound of ax handles clacking isn’t much blunter—but elevating a generic piece of future cable-filler isn’t the same as salvaging it.