- - Thursday, January 31, 2013

Here’s the upper limit on the cleverness of “Bullet to the Head”: When the grizzled hitman played by Sylvester Stallone goes to a bar, he orders a “double shot” of a specific brand of Kentucky bourbon: Bulleit. Which is pronounced like “bullet.” And which he then proceeds to drink. Get it? A double shot. Of Bulleit. Right to his head.

Still, it’s a fitting enough gimmick: Like a double shot of bourbon, the primary purpose of “Bullet to the Head” is to kill brain cells. As a way to fry some gray matter at the multiplex, this lumbering, mostly pointless shoot’em-up succeeds well enough. But there are plenty of ways to do that, and in a cinematic season glutted with low-rent retro action flicks, “Bullet to the Head” doesn’t manage to justify its own existence.

The best it has to offer is a chance to check in on Sylvester Stallone. An outspoken advocate of using human growth hormone to help build body mass, he’s as beefy as ever, with boulder-like biceps and a tributary system of rippling veins. Presumably his character had time to work out in prison: As the gruff, buff killer James Bonomo, Mr. Stallone plays a man with a long criminal history.

That gives director Walter Hill a chance to put together a slideshow of mug shots featuring various pictures of Mr. Stallone’s face over the years. In a series of stills, we see Mr. Stallone’s face evolve from young and smooth to worn and middle-aged to its current state of bulky preservation. At this point, Mr. Stallone, long an icon of the brawny-man set, looks rather like a stunt double wearing a Sylvester Stallone mask. The story this brief slideshow suggests is far more interesting than anything in the movie.

In the 1980s, Mr. Hill, the director, helmed some of the better action movies, including the buddy-cop movie “48 Hours.” That’s an obvious touchstone for “Bullet to the Head,” which pairs Mr. Stallone with actor Sung Kang, a Korean star notable mostly for appearances in several of the “Fast and the Furious” films. Mr. Kang plays an honest cop forced into an uneasy alliance with Mr. Stallone’s lawless professional killer. But there’s no chemistry, much less interesting friction, between the two: Instead, the movie substitutes lazy racial teasing.

Nor do the other characters offer much beyond targets for Mr. Stallone’s character to eliminate. Christian Slater has a small role that doesn’t live up to its promise. And Jason Momoa, who played Conan the Barbarian in last year’s remake, provides little more than a muscle-bound opponent in an ax-swinging final showdown.

To its credit, the movie is short and to the point, skipping rapidly from shootout to showdown to beat down. But at just over 90 minutes, it didn’t leave me wanting more.


TITLE: “Bullet to the Head”

CREDITS: Directed by Walter Hill, screenplay by Alessandro Camon

RATING: R for bloody violence, language, brief nudity

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes


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