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'Bullet to the Head': Fine director drives action vehicle ★★ 1/2

We've been here before. The Sylvester Stallone vehicle "Bullet to the Head" concludes with an ax fight featuring Stallone against his sneering, murderous adversary, played by Jason Momoa, going at it like maniacs in the bowels of an abandoned power plant, the sort of cavernous industrial space featured in a hundred different movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jason Statham. Or Vin Diesel. I believe it was also used by Scarlett Johansson in "The Avengers."

Director Walter Hill, shooting his first theatrical feature in a decade, has been here before, and not just in spirit: "Hard Times," one of Hill's best, made in 1975, contained a scene shot in the very same beat-up and abandoned New Orleans warehouse. The world is full of such buildings. They're a cliche. As is "Bullet to the Head." It's junk, and it's excessively violent, which is a given. Approach it as a Stallone movie (which it is) or as a Hill movie (which it is), but it's more interesting as a Hill movie.

If it gets this director back into the hard-driving action game, then it will have done its duty.

Back when he was hotter, Hill made "The Long Riders" and "48 Hrs." and the undervalued "Geronimo: An American Legend," and he knows a lot about how to film and frame and deliver violence and violent stories on screen. The style here — hairline-to-chin close-ups, nervous, jacked-up editing — isn't Hill at his best. But the movie has a certain grungy panache, "panache" being a French word and "Bullet to the Head" (initially titled "Headshot") being derived from a French graphic novel titled "Du Plomb Dans La Tete." So. Voila.

The bare bones of the graphic novel remain, though a key plot element has been foregrounded. The movie wastes no time in bringing together the vicious but honorable hit man played by Stallone and the crusading police detective played by "Fast & Furious" co-star Sung Kang, who's a tad dull. Stallone is something other than dull: He's riveting in his way. His hairlike hair and facelike face certainly command attention. The part he's playing is a Stallone-y variation on Nick Nolte's cop in "48 Hrs.," the sort of lug who makes jokes about Confucius even though his wary partner in bad-guy killing, the Kang character, hails from Korea.

The plot has something to do with police corruption and skeezy development deals and an incriminating flash drive. Stallone's character, Jimmy Bobo, has a tattoo artist daughter, played by Sarah Shahi. The vibe of the movie recalls a Crown International Pictures programmer from the Reagan era, but with more confidence behind the camera. This is thanks to Hill, who can't make the material any better. But some of the less overtly gory sequences, such as a fast, brutal tangle in a men's room, work well and take you back to Hill's heyday. And before they get what's promised by the title, supporting players such as Christian Slater (amusing as a Big Easy party boy who throws an "Eyes Wide Shut"-style masked ball) and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (as Mr. Big) give their boilerplate dialogue a lift, thanks to a merrily sadistic wag of the eyebrows, or an extra spark of venality in the eyes.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Bullet to the Head' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for strong violence, bloody images, language, some nudity and brief drug use)
Running time: 1:31
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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