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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Bullet to the Head’ is the perfect action movie for Stallone

BULLET TO THE HEAD

(R)

3 and 1/2 stars out of 4

With the possible exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, no one has ruled the action genre over the last four decades more than Sylvester Stallone. The biggest drawback with Stallone’s films is ... as a whole, they’re not very good. Of the 60 movies he’s been in, only five are worthwhile — the first “Rocky,” the first and second “Rambo,” “Nighthawks,” “Cop Land” and this new one.

Based on the French graphic novel “Du plomb dans la tête,” “Bullet to the Head” (like most graphic novel adaptations) is more crime noir than traditional action and it’s perfectly suited for a man of Stallone’s advanced age. While he’s more than earning his paycheck in numerous fight scenes, he’s leaving the bulk of the footwork to his supporting cast and the movie is all the better for it.

On a thematic level, “Bullet” is something of an artistic leap for Stallone as well. In it he plays antihero James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonomo, a twice-convicted felon, lifelong criminal and paid assassin. Having been there and back more than a few times has made Jimmy a tad bitter and more than a little skeptical about everything and he views murder for hire like most of us view taking out the garbage.

After a hit that takes out a dirty ex-cop, Jimmy and his partner are ambushed at a bar by Keegan (Jason Mamoa, “Game of Thrones”), an ex-marine whose specialty is tying up loose ends. As is turns out, the ex-cop was becoming an impediment to a number of prominent men of means in Crescent City, La. who are planning a major real estate swindle.

For reasons not made clear initially, Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) is in town (from either Washington or New York) investigating another crime that is related to the dead ex-cop. Getting the cold shoulder from the local police force, Kwon puts his smartphone and database to good use and tracks down Jimmy to help him out. Needless to say, Jimmy hates cops but grudgingly accommodates Kwon for the sole purpose of avenging the death of his partner.

The oil-and-water pairing of Jimmy and Kwon is, in a word, superb. While it sticks reasonably close to the “mismatched buddy” blueprint, it’s given a neat twist thanks to the relatively odd cop/criminal component. There’s never any tough love stuff, they don’t grow on each other and both protects the other only if it serves their interest.

Alessandro Camon’s screenplay — part hard-boiled Mickey Spillane, part Tarantino irreverence, provides the two leads with an endless supply of comic one-liners and rejoinders that play to both actors’ minimalist style. They’re funny without trying to be funny and the humor plays out more like organic riffing than calculated relief. It should be mentioned that much of what Jimmy says to Kwon could be perceived as racist and anti-Asian. If you think you might find this portion of the film objectionable, you’ll probably want to avoid it altogether.

In a manner not unlike “Snakes on a Plane,” “Bullet to the Head” is a superior example of truth in cinematic advertising. With just a few exceptions, every character that dies in the film (easily 50 or so) meets their end via cap to the noggin but oddly enough, even with the considerable blood and splatter, none of it feels gratuitous or over the top. The lions’ share of credit for this goes to Camon and grizzled veteran action director Walter Hill. A disciple of Sam Peckinpah, Hill (“48 Hrs.” “Red Heat,” the “Deadwood” TV series) is an old pro who knows how to choreograph violence to maximum effect without exploiting it.

“Bullet to the Head” is what every action movie should be: engaging, funny, violent, smart, well-written, quickly paced, short in length and adequately acted. Stallone is never going to be accused of being an actor with much range and, for the most part, he knows it. He wisely follows the advice of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” (Warner Bros.)