This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Sylvester Stallone, left, and Jason Momoa in a scene from "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
‘Bullet to the Head'
Rated R for violence, cursing, nudity, sexuality.
It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when Sylvester Stallone did subtle.
It was roughly the first hour of his Oscar-winning first film, “Rocky.” Then about halfway though that film, Stallone abandoned all trace of subtlety — and has spent the 36 years since then running from it as fast as he can.
The culmination of his marathon journey may have arrived in the form of his latest film, “Bullet to the Head,” a paragon of truth in advertising.
The film's quirks are many, starting with the fact that the story was adapted from a French graphic novel. (What?)
Stallone himself is one of the film's biggest quirks. His physical appearance is something of a distraction; he's a brick, still hellishly cut, with massive veins roping his arms. Call me naïve, but it's tough to imagine a 65-year-old looking like that without considerable help of some kind.
Then there's his voice — a rumbly, slurred, dull-edged rasp that sounds like gravel strained through tar, which makes Sly's copious voiceover narration a shaky decision in hindsight.
The plot is absolutely irrelevant. But for the record:
James Bonomo, aka Jimmy Bobo (Stallone), is a grizzled, aging hit man based in New Orleans whose latest job with his partner, Louis (Jon Seda), is to take out a corrupt ex-cop (Holt McCallany), which he does with a well-placed bullet to the head.
In turn, Louis is knifed to death in spectacular public fashion — amid a crowded bar — by former paramilitary mercenary Keegan (Jason Momoa, the late Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones”).
Det. Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang of “The Fast and the Furious” films), a visiting out-of-town cop, thinks there's a link between the two killings. He tracks down Bobo, who saves Kwon from a bullet to the head by other police officers on the take.
But Kwon is wounded in the shoulder, so Bobo brings him to cute tattoo artist and one-time med student Lisa (Sarah Shahi).
Just as you begin to get creeped out by the idea that this cute young gal and this grizzled block of granite have a thing going on, the script quickly makes clear she's Jimmy's daughter. Which is only slightly less creepy, actually.
Once Kwon is mended, he and Bobo reluctantly team up to get answers, with the trail leading to oily hotshot lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater — where's he been?).
Bobo and Kwon crash a swanky party and learn Keegan and Baptiste work for an unscrupulous land developer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) looking to score a huge real estate deal.
Yes, that's the root of all this mayhem — some oil stain wants to build pricey condos. The premise perfectly suits the rote conventions of the script, which pushes Bobo and Kwon through a series of competently done but mostly unremarkable set pieces.
The film's saving grace is Momoa, 6 feet, 4 inches of blunt force trauma, who gets a choice showcase scene in the inevitable faceoff with Stallone. Of course, these guys are way too cool for knives or guns; they go at it with fire axes. Momoa, flashing grace to match his power, makes it a kinetic piece of choreography.
Stallone seems to hold his own, but how much help he gets from the computer effects geeks is unclear. All the action scenes are edited in the current vogue — choppy, quick cuts that obscure what's really going on and allow filmmakers to fuzz the fact that their star is eligible for Medicare.
A big flaw is the lack of chemistry between Kang and Stallone, and half-hearted attempts to develop some fall flat, such as the barbs they trade about Bobo being a troglodyte when it comes to high tech, while Kwon can snatch crucial info from the ether on his snazzy cell phone.
Part of the problem is that Kwon is a weenie. Every few minutes he reminds Bobo he's a bad man who eventually must answer for his sins — even as he wades deeper into blood at Bobo's side.
It would be easy to dismiss this film entirely, if not for a surprise I haven't mentioned yet: The director is Walter Hill.
Youngsters may not know the name, but Hill's résumé is dotted with cult films that have had a lasting impact on action movies today, including “The Warriors,” “The Long Riders” and “Southern Comfort,” to name a few.
Why Hill would feel the urge to come out of a 10-year retirement to do this derivative, uninspiring flick is one of those Hollywood questions for the ages.
Bottom line: Momoa enlivens “Bullet to the Head” enough that watching it will feel like only a partial lobotomy.