The new Sylvester Stallone vehicle aims to resurrect a once-successful genre—but thanks to recent, more nuanced inversions of the old scheme, the odds are stacked against it.
With a title like Bullet to the Head, it's not unreasonable to expect bad guys in this weekend's new shoot-'em-up to die from, well, bullets to the head. But when hired killer Jimmy Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner head to a posh hotel for their first assignment, they shoot their mark in the chest. The target goes down but doesn't die, setting up a brutal, wholly unnecessary fight sequence.
It's a typically stupid moment for Bullet to the Head. The film is veteran director Walter Hill's attempt to rejuvenate the buddy cop genre he helped create with 48 Hrs. and Red Heat, and it does feature the medium's violence—but none of its thoughtfulness, wit, or energy. The bigger problem, though, is that Hill, like his movie's protagonists, aims at the wrong place. The buddy-cop genre as he once knew it is dead—for good and with good reason.
The premise of Bullet to the Head is like that of Hill's 1982 hit 48 Hrs. in reverse. Instead of a veteran cop who works with a younger criminal, we have a veteran criminal (the Stallone character) who works with a younger cop. After a mysterious muscle-bound mercenary kills Jimmy's partner, he teams up with a Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), who is in town on assignment from Washington, D.C. (Kwon says he works for the garishly abbreviated "WDCPD" when no such police force exists). They develop a relationship out of necessity more than out of respect, and even though they're on opposite sides of the law, they're still somehow surprised and annoyed they can't trust each other. Jimmy and Taylor nonetheless travel together through the criminal underworld, uncovering a conspiracy involving a wealthy African businessman (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and a crooked real estate lawyer (Christian Slater). Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa plays the mercenary who, of course, faces off with Jimmy while using improbably silly weapons.
With movies like 2008's Rambo and the two Expendables films, Sylvester Stallone is enjoying a minor resurgence as an action star. At 66, he's still in terrific shape, as is plenty apparent when he beats up a lowlife inside a Turkish Bathhouse during Bullet to the Head. Muscles notwithstanding, age has done little for Stallone's acting ability: He still delivers his lines with a low rumble, as if toughness is the same thing as unintelligibility. Jimmy hurls every epithet and stereotype he can think of at his partner Kwon, but Bullet to the Head is not offensive: Stallone's age and tough guy persona demonstrate how he's out of touch. Even so, Stallone does not seem to understand that his character is making a joke. And compared to Eddie Murphy, who received a Golden Globe nomination for his bracing performance in 48 Hrs., Kang is a cold fish who makes little attempt at charm. Chemistry is essential to any buddy cop movie, yet the pair trudge forward without much interest in each other or the situation they're in. Their dialogue is little more than a placeholder for the next action sequence, shot with dizzying speed and bone-cracking sound design.
But Bullet to the Head, released during the winter box-office doldrums, never really had a chance. There was a time when better movies of its kind sold: 48 Hrs. was the seventh-most profitable film of 1982, and even though Red Heat opened with mixed reviews, it debuted No. 1 at the box office. Other buddy-cop movies like the Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop were huge blockbusters, comfortably combining action with comedy, but lately there have been few standouts in the sub-genre. Indiewire's Matt Singer has speculated that that's because buddy-cop movies eventually became, "so rigidly codified and copied through the second wave of knock-offs and imitators, that they aged into cliché very quickly." He's right, but that's only part of the reason the movies have lost their appeal.
The other reason is that the genre has been split in half by the emergence of darker, more challenging "buddy-cop" films like Narc and Training Day. Four years after the release of Lethal Weapon 4, the nadir of the franchise, 2001's Training Day freshened the genre by sweeping aside codified clichés Singer refers to. There is no barking police sergeant or over-the-top villain for the buddies to unite against. Instead, director Antoine Fuqua largely limits the scope to the two cops played by Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington (both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards, with a win for Washington). They are initially friendly and test each other's limits, but by the end of the film are facing off against each other. The ferocious climax, where Washington beats Hawke to a pulp, turns the central premise of the buddy-cop film—that the cops ultimately form an alliance—on its head.
Joe Carnahan's Narc took the deconstruction a step further. Whereas Lethal Weapon began with an elegantly melancholy suicide sequence, Narc started with a frenetic foot chase that ended with an undercover cop (Jason Patric) accidentally shooting a pregnant woman. The Patric character, named Tellis, eventually joins up with Oak (Ray Liotta), and as Roger Ebert wrote in his 2002 review, "Tellis and Oak do not fit the usual pattern of cop partners in the movies ... As cops, they think independently and are self-starters, and cooperation doesn't come easily." The genius of Narc is how it preserves the tension between the two characters throughout the film. Unlike Training Day, there is sympathy for both cops even as Carnahan reaches a deadly, morally ambiguous conclusion.
These films marked an epoch change for the buddy-cop film, with their realism throwing a light on the inherently implausible premise hidden under the laughs and action of earlier films in the genre. Narc's followers were either self-consciously gritty (Gone Baby Gone, End of Watch, Shutter Island) or outright spoofs (Hot Fuzz, The Other Guys, Cop Out). Audiences and filmmakers deserted the middle ground. With Bullet to the Head, Hill and Stallone try, weakly and violently, to return to it. Don't expect many to follow.