The Review: When you think of the name Sylvester Stallone, it invariably conjures up some of the greater, more hard-edged action movies of the last forty years. Yes, it’s been 37 years since Rocky and 31 since First Blood, and in that time Stallone has knocked out pretty much an action movie or hard-edged drama per year. No doubt buoyed on by the fact that contemporaries such as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have, Governating hiatus aside, kept going at a similar rate Stallone shows no signs of stopping, and some of his more recent work, especially where he’s gotten to reflect on the passing of time, have been well received. But every action hero needs a good script and a good director to elevate their work, and most of the serviceable scripts which would have been ending up in Sly’s mailbox twenty years ago now have Jason Statham’s name and address on them; no doubt a good chunk of the reason why The Stath ended up co-lead in two Expendables movies. But surely when the likes of Walter Hill come knocking, you can breathe a little easier?
When you think of the name Walter Hill, your first instinct might be to feel reassured, until you start to try to recall the good films Hill’s actually been involved in. The Warriors was good, 48 Hours is OK, and I have a strange soft spot for Brewster’s Millions, but after that I’m really struggling. It’s Hill the director that’s under scrutiny here, for he’s taken Alessandro Camon’s screenplay (based in turn on Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel) and attempted to weave it into a suitable vehicle for Stallone. To say it feels like treading over old ground is an understatement; Hill’s long had a fascination with cops and criminals and their various possible permutations, and the combination slung uneasily together here are Sung Kang (best known for the Fast and Furious franchise) as the cop eager to catch the bad guys, and Stallone as a rent-a-hitman with whom he forms an uneasy alliance while they attempt to achieve their mutual goals.
It’s a template that’s been used a thousand times before, so you’d hope that the casting would elevate this above the rest of the genre. Stallone growls through the film with the Italian-American drawl that’s served him so well for that forty year stretch, but Sung Kang is as wet as a dolphin’s bathroom and never makes either a credible ally or competitor for Stallone. The array of bad guys is somewhat varied: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje invests some interest as the criminal mastermind, but Christian Slater has clearly just taken a pay cheque having fallen on hard times, and why anyone is still casting Jason Momoa in anything where he’s required to talk or act is beyond me, leering through the film with a demented grin and not much else. None of them get anything of note to work from in Camon’s script, which is just join-the-dots plotting and as predictable as tossing a coin with two heads on.
So this is nothing new for either Stallone or Hill, and both have delivered much better examples earlier in their careers. Cliche gets piled on top of cliche, fights and action sequences come and go with little to excite or amuse and the banter is as weak as a baby’s fruit juice. Hill’s direction adds nothing, there’s one of the traditional opening sequences lifted from later in the plot before we flashback to find how events play out (uninspired both in its use and its overuse) and Stallone feels every one of his sixty-odd years. Simply writing about Bullet To The Head feels a chore, mainly because aside from Stallone and Akinnuoye-Agbaje it feels as if I’m putting in more effort than just about anyone else did. Bullet To The Head is as dry as a week old cream cracker and about half as interesting, and maybe it’s time both Stallone and Hill thought about checking out beachfront retirement properties.
Why see it at the cinema: If you want to avoid doing your end of year tax return for just that little bit longer or the paint you were watching has all dried, then give it a go. But there isn’t a single reason why this needs to be seen in a cinema, and hopefully a slow death on DVD awaits.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong bloody violence and strong language. In this case, not enough of a recommendation to see the film.
My cinema experience: With my wife on an early shift, I caught this at a Saturday morning showing, along with about two dozen other men of mixed ages at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds, all with seemingly nothing better to do. Again, sound and projection were about on par with the normal Cineworld experience, so the most excitement I saw all morning was when at the ticket stand, my salesperson advised me that as it was still one of the older style Cineworld Unlimited cards, my card had likely been cancelled (it hadn’t) and then promptly sold me a ticket for the wrong showing. That’s the second time this year, at two different Cineworlds, and I’m hoping it doesn’t become a pattern.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Another 22 minutes, which seems to be about the average this year.
The Score: 4/10
The Review: I think I was born at just the wrong age. I was two when Rocky came out, and still at primary school when Arnie was first flexing his biceps for the camera. I did grow up on a diet of action, but it was Die Hard and Robocop that helped shape my formative years. But as action movies, driven by those late Eighties classics, have evolved and grown more complex over the last thirty years, I’ve come to appreciate the dumber things in life. While I like to be intellectually challenged by some of my viewing, once in a while you just need to see stuff get blown up real good.
So thank goodness for Sylvester Stallone. He’s managed to find ways to extend his Rambo and Rocky series well past their natural lifespans, but especially in Rocky’s case he’s tried to find a different perspective with age. There is a part of the audience for these movies though, in which I shamelessly include myself, that longs for the succession of cheesy one liners and men shooting things until they explode. Forget character development and intricate plot developments – and by and large Stallone has, in a return to old school action movie making.
The concept felt fairly high to start with – cram as many action movie stars, old and new, onto the screen and let them have fun. Sensibly, the central team isn’t too numerous, with the big names evenly divided across the good, the bad and the morally ambivalent, but only a few get any real screen time. The highlights are Jason Statham for the good guys, who Stallone seems to have recognised uses his charisma to cover up his acting deficiencies, but who uses his particular Transporter-style fighting to the best effect in the many, many, many fights and brawls. For the bad guys, Eric Roberts chews the scenery and spits it in every direction, probably about the only one to find just the right tone. Mercifully, Stallone avoids the ageist navel-gazing that ultimately crippled the likes of the Lethal Weapon series, but there is still slightly too much contemplation at times. Come on, blow something up, will ya?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means perfect. The action scenes vary from the pretty good to the I-don’t-understand-what-just-happened-because-you-can’t-shoot-or-edit-properly, Stallone’s attempts to add emotional resonance, mainly in scenes with Mickey Rourke, have all the depth of the shallow end of a paddling pool and are about as enjoyable, a joke about Jet Li’s height wears so thin you can see through it and there isn’t a truly iconic action sequence that will stand the test of time. But it does deliver just enough big muscles, big explosions and giant pulsating stupidity to be a guilty pleasure.
Why see it at the cinema: Actually, if you want an action movie to watch this summer, try The A Team. You can watch that any time. The Expendables should only be seen on a Friday or Saturday night, with a willing crowd who are as drunk as possible. That is a recommendation, in case you were wondering.
The Score: 7/10