Held together with an armature built from noire, buddy cop pairings, and viciously direct action pictures of the ’80s, Bullet to the Head has little reason for its R-rated stench as Stallone pops villainous, protected political types from the bottom up. A hitman wronged by his employer, James Bonomo (Stallone) runs over Crescent City, Louisiana’s underworld while juggling authoritative exploits of a rookie detective, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang).
This clumsily builds to seedy locations – backlit to extinguish visual splash – with an aura of degrading action that silences anyone in the pathway of Bonomo’s lunacy. No one survives, “bullet to the head” an immediately self-referential title before opening credits fade out.
Bonomo loves his profession, a career criminal locked onto success as he guns down cocaine snorting patsies with primitive moral codes. But, he’s a role model for all hitmen: He doesn’t kill women or children, and professes so with a slacking smile.
Stallone is primed in his 60s, built with the presence of a man half his age, flexing his erected veins during a shirtless rumble inside a dreary Turkish bath house. Bullet pushes its table-shattering combat to the forefront, featuring no soundtrack to guide punches, letting them breathe judiciously as the sole audio.
Building on impossible relationships, Bonomo is often short of words, retorting to a technology obsessed Kwon as they push monologues about morally strained ideals onto dismissive personalities. Distrusting with disdain for cops, Bonomo’s attitude is of indifference, Bullet willingly crafting a pair who exhibit no growth: They respect each other, and personal connections go no further.
That harsh, heated attitude is Bullet’s clumsy fall, wonky with its darkened humor that spills tough guy lingo with a wink toward the lens as splattering brains spill out in aggressive fashion. Imbalanced and indecisive as to whether Stallone is returning to solo action roles as Expendables brawn or a mentally scarred Rambo type, Bullet depletes itself as it runs headlong into a wall of off-putting tonalities.
As a superficially adult buddy romp, material is captured within the script to serve a genre of limited scope. Much of the film is abrasive, unwilling to give Bonomo’s caricature – a rotten, thick skulled tough guy – a break from his overly experienced facade. As he brawls with an imposing Jason Momoa in ludicrous (if entertaining) ax-wielding combat, Bonomo reaches the story’s end without any formulated growth. He is written brutish because of audience expectation, sans any likeability. That’s no way to sell a film.
Warner’s encode clashes with already dulled cinematography to create digital mush transferred from film. Bullet to the Head is ugly, with desaturated color, flattened contrast, and limited fidelity lighting that crunches visible resolution at the source.
With an AVC encode in tow, Warner makes the visual scenario worse, capping video to an abysmal 11GB of space inhibiting ability to accurately replicate film grain. Appearing stuck, frozen, or noisy, various forms take shape to slap Bullet with a digital mess that ill represents film formats.
Grain is of minimal concern considering the oppressive pathways the broken encode takes to shatter established hi-def criteria. Faces are blitzed with filtering, either a conscious decision or a look perpetuated by compression. Close-ups waver from rendered sharply to muddied and pasty. Consistent this is not. Medium shots are total downers, smoothly presented with lacking definition, and certainly removed from film.
Early banding is minor in the scheme of faults, of which there are many. Aerials show distinct smearing as cameras pass, and Bullet seems stuck in overcast. Filters are used with clear intent to soften lighting, exhibited in a handful of scenes, made clumsy by the inebriated encoding. If this all sounds repetitious, it is, much like Bullet’s video inadequacies.
To its (limited) credit, black levels, crucial to depth and consistently dark surroundings, pull their side to a clean finish. They stay black, with weight and adherence with regards to shadow detail. Likely, they’re hiding countless artifacts as well.
Bullet’s action menagerie is often sparse, with extensive use of silencers. Opened up, the DTS-HD mix is propped with focus, scattering bullets front to back, including debris. Ransacking the soundfield is boomy LFE, used to bolster guns as well as punches in close. A final round of fisticuffs captures swinging axes as they pass through tremendously spaced positionals.
However, design is special overall. While it is passe to conclude bar ambiance is handled naturally, Bullet takes it further. Listeners become completely centered as light music or a concert passes through the channels. A party atmosphere is stupendous, with clinking glasses and ambient conversation driven into surrounds and stereos. Material spreads wide and creates a full sense of spaciousness. It shows, even where gunfire isn’t of merit within narrative structure, sound can still lift material. There is more done within this 5.1 soundscape than many 7.1 mixes.
When action becomes less about stealth, guns open up within the interior of Hollywood’s always present abandoned warehouse set, echoing with extreme effectiveness. An explosion which signals the third act is hefty too, built with long-winded bass and swirling fire. Awesome mixing, even if some may find it reserved material.
Bullet to the Head became box office poison, ushering a home video release with a single bonus feature, Mayhem Inc.. This nine minute featurette encompasses the usual array of content, from casting, inception, and praise. Meh.
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