03 February 2013

Bulling it: Bullet to the Head and Bullhead

'Bullet to the Head' and 'Bullhead', both in cinemas now, share titular sounds and muscled machismo...

The big uneasy

He don't make them like he used to.

Or does he?

Bullet to the Head is action maestro Walter Hill's first feature as director in a decade (he was a producer on Prometheus last year, and directed the pilot episode of TV's Deadwood in 2004 as well as the two-part miniseries Broken Trail in 2006). Telling the tale of hitman Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) and his reluctant pairing up with badgeless cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), on a quest to find those responsible for killing each man's respective partner, the film is just the kind of no-nonsense actioner for which Hill is highly regarded: goals are simple, talk is cheap, adversity is physical, fights are to the death. The film is even set and shot in the same New Orleans locales made famous by the director's 1975 debut Hard Times, and an early scene features vibrant cajun music evocative of the Dewey Balfa compositions that made the climax of his 1981 masterpiece Southern Comfort so memorably vivid. To boot, in pitching Stallone's impossibly old-school hardman against Kang's techno-savvy newbie, Hill's latest is also a throwback to his own 48 Hrs. (1982): the odd couple brims with racial and generational prejudices.

As if to acknowledge unshakable presumptions of has-beenism, Hill relies on Stallone's sulky growls and unhealthily bulked-up frame to carry the action (Jimmy's drink of choice is Bulleit, "the last of the great bourbons"), and the choreography and editing both pack panache - though neither gains much from the post-Tony Scott flash-cuts that make the screen glow like a feature-length trailer. Adapted by Allesandro Camon from Alexis Nolent's graphic (in presumably both senses) novel Du plomb dans la tête, Hill brings a certain economy and elegance to the pile-up of punches and the rat-a-tat of gunfire - a late-night fight in a swimming pool shows the director play his hand at a pulpier rendition of the brutal Turkish bath scene in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007). Following chief baddy Keegan (Jason Momoa)'s preamble about the political machinations of real estate, there's even a climactic duel involving fire axes (snarls Stallone: "What are we, Vikings?"). And there's an ongoing romance between Lisa (Sarah Shahi), Jimmy's hardened, braless tattoo-artist daughter, and Kwon, from whose shoulder she carefully negotiates a bullet.

All this is to say the film is old-fashioned nonsense, and - in an age of increasingly uneasy depictions of violence - is often brazenly so: the lengthy prologue concludes with Jimmy's partner-in-crime Louis (John Seda) being stabbed four times in a busy and oblivious Big Easy bar, with the camera and sound design fetishising the swift and cruel impact of each thrusted blade. Thereafter, Jimmy's vengeful quest is bullish to the end. There's not one bush to beat around here (the landscape's post-industrial); the go-to option in each and every scenario is to put a bullet in someone (shoot or be shot at). Though he's aided along the way by Kwon's all-in-one cell phone, Jimmy refuses to work within his unlikely partner's moral remit, and as it happens, Nolent's script ensures such outlawish (and outlandish) behaviour is the only code by which anything positive might get done, so corrupt are the legal and political frameworks upholding Jimmy's world. For good measure, the one moment in which he accommodates Kwon's wish to inform a superior of the duo's progress (one of the men killed in the prologue was a rogue cop), Jimmy's worldview is (violently) vindicated.

Revealingly, Hill has said in the past that he views all his films as westerns. But just as westerns themselves have changed, so too have the contemporary, urban variants with which Hill won prominence to begin with. While the aforementioned set-piece in Eastern Promises felt like newish (or that dreaded word, "genre") territory for David Cronenberg, for instance, Bullet to the Head is defiantly dogged in its pursuit of former vogues. Similar to Stallone's own Rocky Balboa (2006), this return to older stuff is of interest perhaps only in relation to said stuff: but brooding machismo has had its time, and the veins that bulge from Stallone's arms are sign enough of a self-pastiche bordering on parody. Walter Hill has returned, then, to a ring now run by hot-property imitators of the stylised sense of realism with which he himself once reigned. A project entitled St. Vincent is due to follow; one hopes it provides the director with much better material.

Raging bull

The opening moments of Bullhead (Rundskop, 2011) suggest an equally rugged machismo. After a brooding male reflects in voice-over that, in the end, "you're fucked", a muscled giant of a man struts up to another and intimidates him over a business matter; the threat dissipates only when the larger walks off, his bullying successful. Said giant is Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a beef farmer's son addicted to the growth hormones his uncle injects into the family farm's cattle herd, who lumbers through the frame unavoidably and perhaps reluctantly commanding it: his is an unexpressed turmoil that comes to dominate the film as it unfolds, rendering the wider intrigues of the Belgian hormone underworld, with which it so effectively begins, to a supporting role.

Up to a certain point, the film resembles (and predates) last year's Killing Them Softly: an arthouse, noirish mixture of threat and folly, it concerns Jacky being dragged into an iffy deal with a notorious criminal, who has just orchestrated the murder of a police officer investigating the "hormone mafia". Like that of Killing Them Softly, however, Bullhead's world is a close-knit and incestuous one, wherein everyone knows everyone else, reputations speak more than words, and personal friendships - such as that between Jacky and childhood pal Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) - complicate business. Add two bumbling auto-mechanics in a recurrently comic subplot and you have the makings of a compelling crime thriller, unusually plotted and set and filmed in a relatively unfamiliar locale.

Spoilers ahead... Writer-director Michaël R. Roskam - whose feature debut this is - demonstrates a certain confidence in evoking the criminal underworld herein, though as things progress he privileges himself with a lengthy, twenty-years-earlier flashback that not only stalls narrative momentum, but also opens up Jacky's personal arc in such a way that the larger story is engulfed by it thereafter. Castrated at the onset of adolescence in a horrid prank, Jacky has been treated with testosterone from early puberty to ensure his development of male secondary sexual characteristics. The inclusion of Jacky's trauma adds to the film; its revelation (and illustration) in flashback is questionable.

Returning to the present timeframe now that Jacky's inner demons and outward appearance have been explained, Bullhead struggles to make its two components - a hormone-fuelled rage-in-waiting, an ongoing police investigation - gel in a way that is less than daft. The introduction of Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), Jacky's first crush and the sister of the boy responsible for his castration, firstly stretches things (does she really not recognise him, even after twenty years of drugs abuse?), and secondly brings the narrative's elements together for an inevitable cul-de-sac. Other sideways nods, meanwhile, such as that to Lucia's brother Bruno, who shows up later in the film in an inexplicably vegetative state, or to Diederik's homosexuality and his affair with a police officer, are suggestive of a fabric the film can't sustain.

On this evidence, Roskam is a better director than scriptwriter, though there were enough merits in this first feature to warrant a Best Foreign-Language Film nomination at last year's Oscars (its belated UK release comes following Schoenaerts' critically acclaimed "breakthrough" in the higher-profile Rust and Bone). The director's next film is Animal Rescue, whose title is more innocent than its apparent subject matter: according to the IMDb, it focuses upon "a lost pit bull, a wannabe scam artist, and a killing". One hopes for a more reined-in, less convoluted rendering of a plot that presumably lends itself to unwieldy flourishes.
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Ps. Bullhead is the second film I've watched this week that has been set on a farm. The other was The Moo Man.