Stallone glowers toward grace in old-school 'Bullet'

Stallone glowers toward grace in old-school 'Bullet'

At first glance, Walter Hill's "Bullet to the Head" seems to be a standard exercise in action, a film loaded with mayhem, but short on plot. Sporting a stripped-down story that's constructed around various set pieces, it sports a retro vibe harkening back to the action movies of the '80s, which seem to be all the rage at present.

However, with Hill at the helm, there's more here than meets the eye. Having made a name for himself with "The Warriors," "The Long Riders," "48 Hrs." and others, the director has specialized in examining codes of honor, personal loyalties and clashes in ideology, old-school notions that have fallen to the wayside. Putting these elements front and center gives the film a degree of narrative heft that's surprising, as does the finely nuanced performance from the movie's lead, Sylvester Stallone, who brings a poignancy to his character that ultimately has us sympathizing with this killer in our midst.

The setting is New Orleans, and the story is as overheated as the city itself. Stallone is Jimmy Bobo, a veteran hit man whose latest job goes awry when his partner Louis (Jon Seda) is savagely killed. Seems that the victim of that hit was a cop gone bad and former partner of Washington, D.C., detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang). He happens to be in the Big Easy on his own dime trying to vindicate his friend, deduces the hit was the work of a professional and miraculously tracks Bobo down. Upon doing so, he proposes that they work together, contending that they're after the same target, as the man who hired him to kill his partner was responsible for Louis' death as well.

Bobo reluctantly agrees and another mismatch made in heaven results with the tech-savvy Kwon trading quips with the no-nonsense killer as they cut a bloody swath through New Orleans. They uncover government corruption, blackmail, murder and ambushes galore as the pair leave a trail of dead bodies and property destruction in their wake so large, the city would certainly qualify for yet another chunk of federal aid. The structure of "48 Hrs." is the template Hill is adhering to, and as such, this is a lean exercise in efficient filmmaking that other directors would do well to emulate. There has never been much fat in the director's movies as one scene builds upon the next, each efficiently moving the story along until a sense of momentum takes hold. That "Bullet to the Head" runs a mere 91 minutes is a testament to Hill's storytelling style.

Stallone gives one of his best performances here, sporting a world-weariness that he wears in a regal manner, strongly shouldering the burdens that have befallen him without complaint — the embodiment of the maxim that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's a subtle turn as we see the actor register the regret his character feels when the culmination of his past sins is laid at his feet. That's not to say that there isn't an element of fun to Stallone's turn here as he snaps off nasty quips with the same fierceness with which his character breaks necks. He commands our attention and dominates the screen whenever he appears, reminding us of his unique place in the Hollywood star system.

While trying to recruit Robert Mitchum for his late Western "El Dorado," director Howard Hawks was asked by the actor what the story of the film was. The filmmaker replied, "No story, just characters." "Bullet to the Head" was made in the same vein with Stallone holding center stage, ably supported by Kang, as well as Jason Momoa and Christian Slater as memorable baddies. Hill keeps this well-oiled machine humming, reminding us that when a pro is at the wheel, all that's needed are the basic elements of film to deliver a rousing piece of entertainment.

 

'Bullet to the Head'

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Christian Slater, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jon Seda, Holt McCallany and Brian Van Holt.

Directed by Walter Hill; produced by Alfred Gough, Alexandra Milchen, Miles Millar and Joel Silver; screenplay by Alessandro Camon, based on the graphic novel by Alexis Nolent.

A Warner Brothers release. 91 minutes. Rated R (pervasive graphic violence and language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" a bloody mess. (2 stars)

The pedigree behind Tommy Wirkola's "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is an odd one and speaks to the disjointed nature of the movie. Produced by Will Ferrell's company, one wouldn't be blamed for thinking that this update on the tale of the brother and sister, who escaped the clutches of a witch by burning her up in an oven, would be a straight comedy. To be sure, the film does contain its fair share of laughs, but coupled with the director's style, which seems anchored by the notion that there's never, ever enough blood and gore in any scene, the movie winds up being a schizophrenic affair.

As written by Wirkola and Dante Harper, the film revolves around a rather clever conceit. Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) have succeeded in building a career based on their traumatic childhood experience. They've achieved a certain degree of fame through hiring out to villages to address their respective witch problems. Utilizing an arsenal of rapid-fire crossbows and automatic firearms that have seemingly been smuggled back through time, they've cut a bloody path through Europe, becoming a bit jaded along the way. Their current job revolves around a series of child abductions they're hired to investigate, something the local sheriff (Peter Stormare) seems reluctant to do himself.

There are no surprises, unless you count the troll, as this is a straightforward exercise of pursuit and deduction with the siblings figuring out that the lost children are being prepared for a rite to be performed on the night of the blood moon. Seems that all the witches in attendance will be rendered fireproof, something the head of the coven, Muriel (Famke Janssen), is quite keen on.

I'm surprised they never refer to this as the "Asbestos Spell," as other stabs at humor are attempted along the way. Hansel is a diabetic as he has been hooked on sugar since his first encounter with the witch's house made of candy, while woodcut portraits of the missing children attached to bottles of milk can't help but garner a chuckle. And don't get me started on the odd variety of witches seen during the film's climax. The Siamese twins who can kill you with their ninja moves have to be seen to be believed.

Yeah, this movie is like dog poop on your shoe — it's all over the place and doesn't do anyone much good. Renner and Arterton are good sports throughout, playing things straight in the service of what they must have known was a dog, while Janssen is perfectly cast, bringing the right combination of menace and sexiness to the role. That the actress admitted in a recent interview that the only reason she took the part was to pay for a new kitchen makes me like her all the more.

And while I hope this film dies a quick death, I don't think that will be the case. The folks at "Mystery Science Theater" are always on the lookout for fresh material, and this is the sort of movie tailor-made for their special brand of dissection.

"House I Live In" a skewed look at nation's drug problem. (2 stars)

There's something about Eugene Jarecki's documentary "The House I Live In" that rubbed me the wrong way.

The filmmaker's self-important tone doesn't hold it in good stead as he portrays himself as a quixotic investigator tilting at a problem that's far too large to be explained in a single film. Jarecki's efforts to connect the war on drugs to his own family, via the nanny who helped raise him, comes off as desperate as well, with the filmmaker attempting to show how even his privileged upbringing was somehow tainted by these once-removed injustices that he only discovered far after the fact.

But ultimately it's the air of paranoia and representation of the key players in the movie's third act that undercuts it, as the conspiracy theory the filmmaker endorses seems a bit too simplistic and wide-reaching to swallow.

Jarecki sets out to indict America's approach toward its drug epidemic and wastes little time in throwing up facts and figures that support the fact that this has always been a Sisyphean undertaking. One trillion dollars has been spent on the war on drugs since 1971, resulting in 45 million arrests, and yet we've come no closer to taking illegal narcotics off the street. While President Nixon, who started this campaign, is seen as a progressive reformer, having endorsed federally funded rehab programs along with tougher laws, those who followed him pushed through sterner sanctions in an effort to curry public favor. Mandatory sentencing laws, which began under Ronald Reagan, are seen as the bane of those caught in this cycle of crime as possession of as little as 5 grams of a particular substance can result in a life sentence.

In pointing out that the possession of crack cocaine, more often used by blacks, carries a harsher penalty than possessing the powdered form, more often used by whites, the film is just grazing the tip of the iceberg regarding the injustices that minorities face. There's no arguing that our system of laws is prejudiced, that little is being done in the way of correcting this and that our country is throwing good money after bad in continuing this course of action. Jarecki is intent on painting a dire picture, and he succeeds all too well.

Unfortunately, he fails to mention the many programs that are in place to help drug offenders, parolees or the poor who often get caught up in the culture of drugs. In doing this, he casts minorities as being doomed from the start and incapable of overcoming their own circumstances, while whites are cast as deceitful in the way they've seemingly gone out of their way to keep them oppressed.

While there's no question that our drug culture is a problem that must be more effectively addressed, by portraying the cast of characters involved in strictly black-and-white terms, he does an injustice to us all.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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