"Bullet to the Head" opens with a nice black-and-white sequence of Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) saving the life of Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a young Korean American cop. This immediately establishes for us the main conflict of the film: Bobo is a hit man; Kwon is a naive, incorruptible D.C. police detective, who has come to New Orleans to chase down a lead. Going after the same people, they temporarily become “partners.” And every time Bobo saves Kwon's life, Kwon reminds him that, as soon as they're done, he intends to arrest Bobo.
With Bobo narrating and color blossoming in the image, we leap back a day or two for some background. The blood-soaked opening wasn't very long, so we get a much more extensive and even bloodier sequence, in which Bobo and his usual partner ballistically perforate a particularly irritating, coked-up criminal. But they are betrayed by their client, who decides to save a big wad of cash by hiring yet another hit man to take them out — an obligation that he only 50% discharges.
Soon they discover that their anonymous client is a crooked businessman (Christian Slater), who answers to an even more crooked developer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who, in turn, has bribed most of the city government. The Golden Snitch in this violent game of Quidditch is a flash drive listing all his payoffs, which has fallen into the hands of imprudent blackmailers.
Now here's where the plot goes kerflooey in an all-too-common way: It's not the drive itself that's of value, but the information on it. So, when Kwon gets his hand on the drive, all he has to do is dupe it, or email the files to a bunch of friends, or post them on his Facebook page, or whatever. But the story depends on everybody chasing after a physical object, so we have to believe that none of the characters have stumbled onto this.
The relationship between Stallone and Kang is reminiscent of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte shtick in “48 Hrs” — which shouldn't be surprising, given that both were directed by Walter Hill. Before James Cameron showed up, Hill was generally regarded as America's leading young director of action films, with “Hard Times” (1975), “The Warriors” (1979), and “Streets of Fire” (1984) to his credit. “Bullet to the Head” is his first feature in more than a decade.
He still has his chops, but nonetheless there's something perfunctory about the whole affair. Stallone does his weary tough-guy act, which he continues to do very well, but the only other players to leave much of an impression are Jason Momoa (as the scariest of the baddies) and Sarah Shahi (in the only female role of note).
If you're taking a sabbatical from on-screen violence, you should definitely give this a pass: It has more than its share of (as the title suggests) bullets to the head, and some very nicely staged knife and ax battles are even more gruesome.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).