If early 2013 was some kind of competition, then it's Stallone - 1, Schwarzenegger - 0. Bullet to the Head isn't extraordinary by any measure, but its penchant for brutish vigilantism is a lot more entertaining than The Last Stand's dull showdown. Stallone once again proves he is best when he plays a big oaf.
Bullet to the Head, based on the graphic novel Du plomb dans la tête, almost plays out like an Expendables sidequest. The Expendables' Barney and this film's James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) share similar blood, if not the same powerful mustache. Bonomo is a hitman with the tiniest bit of a heart. He's a ruthless killer, but he might just spare you if you look really, really innocent.
Bullet to the Head's plot doesn't throw too many innocent people his way, though, and his cut-to-the-chase attitude keeps things moving along. When Bonomo's partner is killed, an out-of-town detective, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), arrives to solve the case. The impossible duo end up working together to get answers, though I don't know if it truly qualifies as "working together."
Set in New Orleans, the film is thick with the style of the town. It doesn't always work, as the groovy soundtrack can be a bit overbearing, but it lends some color to what would otherwise be a monochromatic film. Juxtaposing the erratically-edited brawls and shootouts with parades, live bands, and masquerades saves Bullet to the Head from being too generic.
The buddy cop/hitman angle works for the most part, but I could have done without the constant jokes about reading tea leaves and fortune cookies. This isn't Rush Hour, but the one way in which Stallone really shows his age is by coming off as a bit backwards. When a guy with Sly's notoriety steps up, it can be hard to separate the character from the star.
What he lacks in open-mindedness he more than makes up for with his trigger finger. The theme isn't the typical "vigilante justice works" so much as "sometimes a bullet to the head moves the plot along." It seems that whenever there's a danger of the story getting too complicated, someone with a gun simplifies it. I can get behind that.
Bullet to the Head isn't the same kind of so-dumb-it's-smart filmmaking Stallone nailed when he revived Rocky and Rambo. There's no ironic wit or heartfelt messages here. If anything, it could have been a little less dumb. The Hollywood action film toolkit is used too liberally to deliver terrible one-liners and unnecessary callbacks.
While Schwarzenegger seems to be taking the road towards self-deprecation, Stallone isn't ready to call it quits. Bullet to the Head may dip slightly into the navel-gazing, old-man-action-star bit, but Stallone still has it. It isn't perfect, but this film shows that you can still do old school action movies without a pile of irony and still be entertaining.