Most of us have never mistaken Sylvester Stallone for a cutup. Maybe the occasional producer has — the makers of “Rhinestone,” say, or of “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” — but not the rest of us. So it’s a surprise that Stallone is as funny as he is playing a hit man paired with a cop in “Bullet to the Head.” He’s man-cave witty in a way that his “Expendables” movies have strived for but haven’t really managed. If “Bullet” had anything else going for it, it might be a little more than just the grungy revenge flick of the week.
Stallone pulls off his trick by not trying too hard, by not mugging. His New Orleans mob palooka, Jimmy Bobo, generally looks annoyed to be here, or bored at the very least. He’s a guy who brings his own whiskey to bars and churlishly “rents” a glass because he’s got no patience for his obscure label not being stocked. (The one thing he does have patience for, seemingly, is marathon tattoo sessions; the sprawling canvas of faux ink Stallone flashes makes that weird, veiny, sexagenarian-bodybuilder’s torso look that much funkier.)
Sure, Jimmy feels it when his partner (Jon Seda) is set up and shivved to death. (Stallone mutters terrific gravelly voice-over snippets here and there to let us know what’s going on in his head.) But his expression projects peeved resignation about the whole mess — like: Great, one more thing I’ve gotta deal with. And it really makes his week when out-of-town detective Kwon (Sung Kang, “Fast Five”) comes around pushing for an alliance to crack the case.
We’re handed some transitive-property expositional nonsense about how Jimmy’s target at the movie’s outset was Kwon’s crooked ex-partner, so Kwon figures they’ve got a common enemy to track down. Put more simply, it’s a buddy-cop setup with a twist(!) — one of ’em is actually a criminal(!!). Or, put another way, it’s just director Walter Hill (“The Warriors”) tweaking his formula from the “48 Hrs.” franchise.
The repartee here feels about that old — politically incorrect ethnic digs, whippersnapper needling, clunky stuff that elicits yawns or outright groans. The stock baddies (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and, just passing through, Christian Slater) aren’t any better, although there’s some action spark between glowering mercenary Jason Momoa (of Conan 2.0 fame) and Stallone. (At last — Rambo versus everyone’s favorite barbarian.) But the movie’s best moments are when Stallone is serving aces, not trying to keep weak volleys going. His unexpected, withering irascibility saves that ridicule-courting title from all the obvious jokes.