This past week I did a double-dip at my local movie theater and took in the “comeback” films for two of the three great 80s action film stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone (the third being Bruce Willis, whose own A Good Day to Die Hard—the fifth installment in the series—opens this week). I grew up watching Sly and Ah-nold taking out bad guys and blowing up anything (and anyone) who got in their way. So when I found out that The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head were coming out just a week apart, I was pumped.
Calling these “comeback” films for both men isn’t exactly accurate. Schwarzenegger left the movie industry at the height of his career in 2003 for an eight year stint as the governor of California. He didn’t completely walk away from Hollywood but made the occasional cameo including appearing in both of Stallone’s Expendables films. On the other hand, Stallone’s only slow period came post-Cop Land (1997) when he starred in a string of flops and straight-to-video misfires (Get Carter, Driven, Eye See You, Avenging Angelo) before appearing in the critically acclaimed low-budget indie Shade (2003) and the not-so-critically acclaimed but box office smash third installment of Robert Rodriquez’s Spy Kids series, Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (2003). Three years later, Stallone would bring his most beloved character, Rocky Balboa (2006) back to the big screen. The film proved to be so successful he did the same for his other iconic character, Rambo (2008), before teaming up with a who’s who of action film stars in The Expendables (2010) and its sequel two years later. So for Stallone this was simply his next movie, while Schwarzenegger needed to prove he still had the star power—and the firepower—to be relevant a decade after his exit from the theater.
So how did they fare? The short version is that Schwarzenegger wins this round with a TKO. Both films have similar narratives: two aging tough guys just trying to get by. One, Schwarzenegger, is a small-town sheriff who lives a quiet life in Arizona until an on-the-run drug cartel leader decides to come through town on his way to cross the border. The other, Stallone, is a hit man who’s been double-crossed by his employer, who has not only held back payment for the latest job but has also sent another hit man to take out Stallone and his partner.
Where the two films differ is in terms of style and tone. The more successful of the two, The Last Stand, is a tribute to the over the top action films of the 80s. During a routine prisoner transfer, drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes custody with the aid of a personal army and a customized Corvette ZR1, the presumed fastest car in the world. FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) immediately mobilizes a task force and contacts the various towns along the highway in hopes of stopping Cortez from reaching the border. Cortez’s point of crossing is a small canyon near the town of Sommerton Junction. How will he make it across the canyon? His hired army is building a mobile assault bridge for that very purpose. The only thing that stands in his way is the town’s sheriff, Ray Owens and his unlikely band of deputies (think Rio Bravo rather than High Noon). Director Jee-woo Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003) pushes the realm of plausibility with the story, the action, and the violence. Everything—the daring escape, the stolen Corvette, the empty town (everyone’s at a high school football game miles and days away), the gun hoarding local loony (Johnny Knoxville), the completely inept FBI and SWAT agents—isn’t simply on the verge of ludicrous, it is ludicrous. The violence is so explosive, it’s laughable. But that is exactly the point. The film is so much fun that you forgive the outrageousness of everything happening on the screen. Kim pulls it off by controlling the pacing and doing his homework. He stuffs in every 80s action movie cliché that he can manage: the rekindled love, the sacrificial lamb, the once big city cop who had enough and left to find a peaceful life only to have the violence follow him, the barrage of bullets and one-liners. But under Kim’s careful direction the clichés work as homages to the big budget blockbusters that made Schwarzenegger a star. The film works in part because the camera never tries to hide the fact that Arnold’s getting old. Every line is visible in his face. He never runs; he shuffles. And he never, ever takes off his shirt. It also works because Arnold is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast: in addition to Whitaker and Knoxville, the cast includes Peter Stormare (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), Luis Guzmán (Boogie Nights, Carlito’s Way), Jaimie Alexander (Thor), and even a brief appearance by Harry Dean Stanton (Cool Hand Luke, Alien). Stormare is believably creepy and greasy as the head mercenary, while the others deftly pull off townsfolk who are willing to stand together for the sake of their home.
Bullet to the Head is another throwback of sorts, but it simply doesn’t pull it off. While The Last Stand was directed by a young South Korean director who most likely grew up on the action films of the late 70s and 80s, Bullet was directed by one of the originators of the genre, Walter Hill. Hill began making a name for himself in the late 70s as a writer and director of lean, gritty, neo-noir thrillers like Hard Times (1975), The Driver (1978) and the so bad it’s good The Warriors (1979). The films were big on action and atmosphere but short on plot, a combination that would become Hill’s trademark. Though as producer, he has helped to bring some truly classic films to the big screen (Ridley Scott’s Alien for instance), as a director Hill is basically a one trick pony. Streets of Fire (1984), Extreme Prejudice (1987), the Schwarzenegger vehicle Red Heat (1988), Trespass (1992), and Last Man Standing (1996) with Bruce Willis represent the filmography of a director who remained in a state of arrested development. Bullet to the Head does nothing to change that course. Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo, a gravel-voice, bourbon-swigging hit man in New Orleans. After his partner is killed by Keegan (Jason Momoa), another hit man sent by Bobo’s employer to “clean things up,” Bobo is forced to team up with Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang), a detective from DC sent to find out why a former DC cop gone bad has turned up dead in a New Orleans hotel room. The film tries desperately to be a “buddy film” in the vein as Hill’s own 48 Hours (1982). But unlike The Last Stand, Bullet is no homage. It is a simple, straight attempt to reclaim the late 70s action films of the likes of, well, Walter Hill. The dialogue sounds as if it were lifted from a comic book (in its defense, the film is based on the French graphic novel Du plomb dans la tête by Alexis Nolent). Not only is the dialogue unbelievable, the way information is conveyed to characters and the audience is as well. In one particularly bad scene, the primary antagonist Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and his lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater) have a meeting with Keegan and send him to retrieve a file that contains evidence that lays out Morel’s devious plot and links him to several high powered individuals, including a few congressmen. This is all explained to Keegan (and the audience) in agonizing detail. No one would do this. A powerful villain and his equally corrupt lawyer would not lay out all of this information for a hired hit man. They would simply tell him to retrieve the file without giving any indication as to what is contained in the file. This happens repeatedly throughout the film with Kwan calling into DCPD and receiving ludicrously detailed information relating to the various players in the film. This is only one of the glaring problems in the film. Like its 70s predecessors, the film is laced with gratuitous violence and nudity. Granted, The Last Stand is full of violence as well, but the violence in Bullet is never laughable. It’s callous and accepted as the way things are in this world as is the nudity. Virtually every woman in the film from the hooker in the hotel, to Bobo’s daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi), to the various unnamed women at the Eyes Wide Shut-style party at Baptiste’s house is shown nude. The only reason for this seems to be that Hill enjoys seeing female bodies almost as much as he enjoys seeing men shot. The final issue with the film is the fact that Hill simply doesn’t trust his audience. At one point when Keegan is mentioned, there is a quick flashback to remind us of who Keegan is just in case we have forgotten him in the last ten minutes. With its sloppy direction, one dimensional characterizations, and absolutely dreadful writing, the film is completely forgettable, failing to capture even the B-movie appeal of The Warriors.
Neither film will live on to be remembered as a work of genius, but neither film will hurt either actor’s career. The Last Stand won’t garner the attention of “serious” film critics in the way that Cop Land did for Stallone, but it’s respectable enough to show that Schwarzenegger does still “have it” but is willing to accept the limitations of his age. For Stallone, however, Bullet to the Head will neither add to nor detract from his reputation. A glance at IMDB shows that both actors have numerous projects in the works, including the upcoming The Tomb, a movie in which they will be co-stars. Whatever their future, these two films show that this wasn’t the last round for either of these former box office heavyweight champions.