Bullet to the Head
A new Quentin Tarantino movie came out about a month ago, and along with the film came his return to the press circuit. He’s always good for 1 or 8 contrarian opinions on any given topic, but there’s one Tarantinian theory that’s ruffled more feathers than most: the idea that directors go bad with age. "Look at Billy Wilder’s ’Buddy Buddy’," he always professes, arguing that sometimes, great artists just can’t help but ’lose it.’ I hardly subscribe to the theory. After all, some of my favorite filmmakers working today are in ’advanced stages’ of their life.
Martin Scorsese is 70, Hayao Miyazaki is 72, the Coen Brothers are creeping up on 60. Even Tarantino and some of foreign contemporaries, like Takashi Miike and Wong Kar-Wai, are pushing past 50 (hardly spring chickens themselves.)
This is all to say that age is hardly a correlative to quality in the film industry, and that the idea of it being a "young man’s game" is misleading at best. But in the case of the once-magnificent action director Walter Hill, who came to prominence with hard-boiled oddities like "The Warriors" and "The Driver," Tarantino might have a point. He who once struck us with his aesthetic exuberance has receded into full-fledged incompetence.
I hesitate to detail the plot of Bullet to the Head, his first theatrical picture in a decade, but only because I already did it two weeks ago when "Broken City" came out: another bad-boy Mayor orders a killing spree as an offshoot of his plot to sell off public housing at a major profit; but - surprise! - he pisses off the wrong working class heroes in the process.
In this case, it’s Sly Stallone (looking like he just filmed a commercial for steroids), and Sung Kang (who, struggling to even make his line readings sound natural, seems to be wishing he was back on set of another "Fast and Furious" movies with his muse Justin Lin), who are left behind to look cool and shoot bad guys. Guns are fired, axe fights are had, the good guys make jokes about their age and their race; and if it worked, we’d all leave the theater feeling like we had just seen "48 Hours" all over again.
But it doesn’t. And it’s hardly the tired plot driving me to write off the man who directed "The Driver." No, it’s the dead-serious delivery of lines like, "Sometimes, you just have to abandon your principles to do what’s right," that make it clear the Walter Hill of old has passed us by. It’s the way he uses a cheap Final Cut effect of a muzzle flash to transition between scenes. It’s in the way his narrative - the public housing angle - hardly even earns mention; revealing the whole film as little more than a MacGuffin designed to drive us towards some knife-fights. Hell, one of our opening scenes is an introductory voiceover that plays over still photographs (it comes off as cheap as it sounds; feeling like a low-rent Powerpoint Presentation.)
There’s a couple of the mean, masculine moments we’ve come to expect from him; as if to prove the film weren’t a prank: Christian Slater’s pseudo-pervert villain opining that there’s "nothing [Sly] can do to him that I haven’t already done to myself for fun." Or another when Sly and Sung take a quiet moment to assess their many shortcomings after Stallone comes clean about his failure as a father. But these are diamonds in the rough; far from emblematic of the film on the whole. No, there’s one specific moment that defines "Bullet": Sly, taking some offense at a comment from his partner, snaps back: "I’ve got your old man right here." We immediately cut to the "A Film by Walter Hill" title card after the line delivery. You don’t say.