Walter Hill's kind of a big deal. When fools go off about how they claim to be fans of action...of gritty, pulpy, noiry action, and whine that American movies just don't have the "guts" to really get down and dirty, those of us in the know just bring him up, and are only happy to educate. And then the crowd quickly dissipates and we're left to face just how nowhere all this film "knowledge" has gotten us, but moving on.
Walter Hill is one of a certain archetype of cinephile's favorite archetype of director--works in the action/crime genre (but in that cool, European, self-aware way that acknowledges tropes and comments on them by heightening them....or something), and the best of his films were commercial failures at time of release, only to gain cult followings. The archetype of cinephile that lusts after the Walter Hills of the world has typically consumed a vast amount of movie product, and so has this hard-to-quench thirst for the grimiest B-movie-est, bloodiest action films....the "regular" action films now seem limp. This gluttony for more is a sort of substitute for refined taste, and seems to pass as such in most conversations about film, so we'll leave that alone for now. The crime genre functions more like a drug, and now that we're all addicted, the days of the gritty, B, comic-book-inspired storytelling being critically dismissed are long gone. Ex-video store clerks like Quentin Tarantino are our new titans of cinema, and their works of exploitation are given limitless studio budgets in Hollywood, and serious, thoughtful discussion in New York.
Walter Hill directed The Warriors, the legendary cult classic that had to be pulled from theaters its first week from all the in-theater gang violence it was inspiring. It was based on the comic book style back when no one was "basing" things on comic book styles, and back when it actually didn't get you respect. (This new one is based upon the French graphic novel Du Plomb Dans La Tete by Alexis Nolent.) Walter Hill directed Streets of Fire, the Rock 'n' Roll adventure credited with inventing the music video, where Diane Lane sings (well, her mouth moves) songs by Jim Steinman (wrote the Meat Loaf songs you care about) and Willem Dafoe leads a biker gang and Rick Moranis wears a suit as snappy as his mouth. These were youthful, energetic, passionate, and most important of all, new films. And their newness pulses through them. And their newness has not aged, as have Hill and his new star, Sylvester Stallone (I wonder if some critics will want to label Sly the movie star counterpart to Hill.....not really accurate, but I sure was tempted.)
So, now that we've had the "intellectual" latter day Stallone (Rambo 4), and the "self-aware" latter day Stallone (The Expendables), it's maybe time to return to the "stripped-down" latter day Stallone? Aside from a few chunks of dialogue that take some self-approved jabs at the stallion's age (to not acknowledge it would be insane at this point), Bullet to the Head does seem to play like what modern audiences probably would find to be what the good ole days of action films were like....before we pretended we needed/wanted intricate plots, layered characters, and social commentary.....or maybe we weren't pretending, we just followed that down its path, and found it did us no good, so we're back for the pop tarts.
Stallone plays a hitman who kills people but we like him because he's the main character, narrates the film (so we're inside his head), and throws out some vague reference to his "rules" (like he doesn't kill women or children.....the man's a saint!).....and, also we like him because the rest of film is populated by characters so vile and disgusting that he ends up being the good guy by default....sounds about right for that tasty noir "cynicism" we all like to be fans of, right? Anyways, so he does a job, then gets betrayed by his bosses, and has to go kill them cause they're sending after another larger-than-life hitman (played by the 21st century Conan the Barbarian, Jason Momoa) to kill this hitman (yeah, pretty inefficient). Also, there's an out-of-state cop (the irresistibly suave Sung Kang from the later Fast & Furious films) with some laughably outdated belief in the code of the law, but he has to work with Stallone to get the bad guys, and along the way learns that sometimes the best way to be the goodguy is to take a cue from the bad guys...maybe. At one point, Stallone does say "It was time to forget my principles and do something right." or something, which doesn't mean a whole of a lot, but it sounds good, and is right at home in this "genre" piece. Oh, and also the cop is of Asian descent, so when you bring him and an over-the-hill Italian American, then the comedic possibilities are pretty much never-ending. This gives us a good opportunity to hear a lot of politically incorrect jokes that are "okay" to laugh at because now we're "aware" of the racist tropes, but that's a topic for another day.
There are some fight scenes that have been stripped down so there's no annoying score to get in the way of the blows and punches and oofs and aahs. Which is cool. And classic. And that'll be the thing to talk about in the lobby before the entire movie vanishes from your memory. And the chase through the parking structure with all of its squeaky screechy glory will make you remember how cool those claustrophobic interior chase scenes in Hill's The Driver were. But that's the problem here....the best things about Bullet to the Head will just make those who've seen remember how great it was done before, and for those who haven't seen, well, they'll have a solid, instantly forgotten-and-disposed-of good time, maybe laced with an empty inkling that this film was lightly recalling some Platonic purity of action film, when we were all too young and too excited to even stop and think of movies as art, or social objects, or even escapism. Or maybe that was just a dream I had.
On paper, it's all there. But the youth is gone, and not just on-screen and behind-the-camera....I mean the youthful conquest that was baked into the film of those early Hills. Still, even this post-post-post, repackaged, mostly-limp-but-still-slightly-more-hard-edged-than-most-modern-action-films-maybe Bullet to the Head is more or less a hoot. If you're an action fan, and you're going to the movies this weekend, this one is definitely an action movie and it ought to definitely absolutely probably satisfy most of what you think you want out of the movies. Stallone is great, and if you've ever been an admirer of his strength-from-naivite, surprisingly relatable, behemoth performances, you'll be down. Slimy Christian Slater turns in a solid love-to-hate-him kingpin. And I'm sure from his perspective, Walter Hill was just doing what he's always done....getting the job done..simple, efficient, and effective....and maybe he was....maybe it's just duped hipster critics who crowned him a postmodern revisionist, only to snatch that title away once the "word got out."
All the same, I'd probably just stay home and take in a pre-comeback Mickey Rourke in Hill's Johnny Handsome. Seriously, check that one out.
"Bullet to the Head" opens February 1, 2013 and is rated R. Action, Crime. Directed by Walter Hill. Written by Alessandro Camon, Alexis Nolent. Starring Christian Slater, Jason Momoa, Sung Kang, Sylvester Stallone.