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‘Bullet to the Head’ Review: Occasionally Entertaining…Until the Shooting Stops

Walter Hill still knows how to direct an action sequence, but when Sylvester Stallone opens his mouth and starts acting, the whole movie collapses

Thirty-one years ago, Walter Hill directed “48 HRS.,” one of the all-time classic mismatched-buddy movies, a film that deftly mixed comedy and action with two lead characters bristling against each other until they grudgingly find some degree of mutual respect.

Despite the presence of Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, “Bullet to the Head” reminds us that it’s definitely not the ’80s anymore; Hill can still direct a shoot-out and a fistfight with the best of them, but there’s no wit to this leaden piece. When the shooting stops and the actors start talking, you can feel the movie hitting bottom and marking time until the next burst of action.

Adapting a French graphic novel, screenwriter Alessandro Camon (“The Messenger”) delivers up a by-the-numbers plot but still requires two prologues to get the ball rolling. Still, it all boils down to this: hitman James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone) and his partner kill some scuzzball, and within hours the partner has been killed by Keegan (Jason Momoa), who also tries to off Jimmy.

D.C. cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang of “Fast Five”) comes to town — which is obviously New Orleans, but it’s comic-bookishly called “Crescent City” throughout — because the scuzzball turns out to be his former partner, who went rogue and had planned to blackmail Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who, like a great many movie villains these days, has a nefarious plan to turn slums into condos. (“Prestigious condos,” as the character likes to point out.) Kwon and Bobo team up to get revenge, blah blah hidden file of evidence, blah blah Bobo’s kidnapped daughter (Sarah Shahi), blah meow lots of bullets to lots of heads.

“Staccato blasts of violence” fall firmly within Hill’s skill set, but his style has been so aped over the last few decades that there’s nothing in “Bullet to the Head” that feels particularly fresh. And then there are the wretched performances, particularly from Stallone, who has absolutely zero chemistry, or even anti-chemistry, with Kang.

Bobo makes racist barbs, and Kwon rolls his eyes, but they never butt up against each other in a remotely interesting way. It’s like observing the world’s longest awkward cocktail party conversation, between two people searching the room desperately for someone else to talk to.

Only Momoa provides any kind of danger or intensity, but the movie betrays him by building to a big showdown between him and Stallone. You can predict how implausibly that ends. Stallone can still be entertaining — the “Expendables” franchise is pretty much the “That’s Entertainment!” of 1980s action ridiculousness — but here he’s got no character to play, nothing fun to say, and the craziest hair/hairpiece/scalp growth this side of John Travolta.

Add to that a cavalcade of clichés from the local color that reads like a Chamber of Commerce video (jazz bands, an overdose of zydeco flavoring in the score by Ry Cooder wannabe Steve Mazzaro, Bobo’s swamp house that’s apparently just down the bayou from Jason Statham’s in “The Mechanic”) to the utterly predictable story beats, and you’ve got a thoroughly generic movie that can only sporadically provide even gut-level thrills. (Even the title rips off a much better movie, John Woo’s “Bullet in the Head.”)

Hill, Stallone and even Kang have done better and, with luck, will do better again. Do them and yourself a favor and pretend this movie never happened.