The Violent Failure of 'Bullet to the Head' to Avenge the Buddy-Cop Film

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.

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Warner Bros.

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.

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Alan Zilberman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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