Remember the good old days when people could enjoy watching an action hero who shoots a lot of people without feeling like they were contributing to the ruin of society? Sylvester Stallone sure hopes so. The well-preserved Rocky and Rambo star, now 66, is back in theaters this week with Bullet To The Head, his first solo vehicle since The Expendables franchise (made in collaboration with his grumpy frat pack bash brothers) Viagra’d his brand of brawn. Stallone’s latest feature, directed by the venerable action maestro Walter Hill (The Warriors; 48 Hours), seems poured from the mold that he helped forge back in the day with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. In fact, the one-time Planet Hollywood power trio is trying to muster a resurgence this year that resembles their shoot ‘em up heyday, albeit with more gray hairs (or no hair) and additional wrinkles (or conspicuously fewer). Bullet To The Head follows Schwarzenegger’s post-Governator comeback bid, The Last Stand, and ahead of A Good Day To Die Hard, Willis’ fifth stint as insurance nightmare John “I can’t believe this is happening to me AGAIN!” McLane. (The Joseph Gordon-Levitt lookalike also has the sequel to RED – about a secret society of retired CIA agents – later this year.)
So far, so meh: Arnie flagged fast at the box office ($11 million and change stateside after 16 days of release), and Sly is currently trying to avoid getting totally chowed by the zombie rom-com Warm Bodies. [Monday morning update: Bullet To The Head finished sixth at the box office during it opening weekend, grossing only $4.5 million. Would it have gotten more of its male target audience if didn’t have to compete with the Super Bowl?] Perhaps they’ll do better together in September when they team up for a prison break opus entitled Tomb… although I’m already giggling at the headlines that the title might inspire should these aging Geriaction giants take another fall.
Bullet To The Head offers the prospect of seeing a couple different Stallones all at once (what value!), The Thug Who Does Good (Rocky, The Specialist, Get Carter) and The Cop Who Plays By His Own Rules (Cobra, Judge Dredd, Tango & Cash). He’s more the first than the second, although when you stop to think about it, there’s no difference between either trope except a badge, and it’s quite possible that Bullet is winking at this blurry divide. Stallone plays a hit man named Johnny Bobo who is betrayed by a pair of slimy suits who also happen to be responsible for slaying of a righteous police officer. The dead cop’s partner wants vengeance, and he buddies up with the properly motivated Bobo to get it. In this way, Bullet is part of a larger trend of Dark Knights and Inglorious Basterds that promote the idea that revenge is the only credible motivation for anyone to want to play the hero. It’ll be interesting if this will peter out — or continue — as we venture beyond Zero Dark Thirty.
I have not always enjoyed Stallone’s 3M screen presence (muscles, mumbles, mopey) when he applies it to haunted or heavy avengers. Which is often. He comes off as stiff and joyless, even in his most popular movies. Yet the commercials for Bullet have suggested a kind of Sly that I happen to like: Slightly looser, slightly self-aware, still pretty minimal – literally ‘sly.’ His persona is even more appealing because everything we know about him right now enhances it: Stallone is clearly enjoying his renaissance, and that subtle but palpable feeling of affirmation, even gratitude brightens and lightens a demeanor that often reads gloomy and leaden. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Either way, it gets him what he wants: Me, interested in him. I like this scrappy Hollywood senior who refuses to slow down. I like this hulky-bulky virile codger who doesn’t need CG supplements to perform his smash-and-bash ballet. I like this action icon at sunset who kinda sorta gets it, and is having a blast while he still can, the best way he knows how. (That said: My favorite Sylvester Stallone is the one who winningly, deeply played both to and against his various types in Cop Land, a movie that reminded us that Stallone can really emotionally connect with an audience. I want to see more of that guy. My pitch: Someone needs to write the Unforgiven of the urban action hero genre and put him in the Eastwood, Freeman, or Hackman role.)
Unfortunately, the commercials for Bullet To the Head also promise a kind of entertainment that I don’t want to see right now. Not so soon after Sandy Hook. (Full disclosure: My thinking on what follows is greatly colored by the fact that I am a parent — a little freaked right now — to three young children.) In fact, given the current sensitivity (hypersensitivity?) to the matter of real violence in society and its relationship to fictional violence on screens, I’ve been surprised to the degree in which the studio has sold the mayhem of the movie. In one commercial, we get this text: “It’s not Stallone without… Car Crashes… Explosions… And Axes.” (“What are we? Vikings?!” quips Stallone as he faces off against a foe with a big hatchet.) In all commercials, lots of gunplay, and the kicker beat in which one character screams “You can’t just kill a guy like that!” and Stallone replies: “I just did.”
Look, I get it: It’s funny. The more I see these spots, the more I laugh. And I actually appreciate the implicit honesty. The message: Look, it is what it is. If you like this, we’ve got a lot of it. And the axe thing is just bonkers, isn’t it? Still, it’s been less than two months since Sandy Hook. Even as I laugh, I feel it’s too much, too soon.
I can’t stress enough that my response to Bullet To The Head is based only on how it’s been presented to me, which is through the commercials, and I agree, a movie shouldn’t be judged by its advertising. That said, commercials function as virtual ambassadors of the film. And what they tell me is that Bullet wallows in violence for the fun of it. (And according to many reviews, including our own, this particular wallow is indeed fun.) In a different time, I would have been more easily sold. I appreciate the artistry and energy of a well-choreographed, well-performed, well-shot choreography bang-bang and bloody boom. I do like it better when it’s witty or ironic, when it brings us into the outrageous joke of it all (and again, in all fairness to Bullet, I get the sense, the more I learn about it, that the movie aims for over-the-top) or uses violence to say something about violence. I also accept the fancy-sounding theory that these experiences provide some kind of healthy catharsis for fears or frustration. After a difficult day of clashing with editors or collaborators, there’s nothing like watching someone f— someone up to make me feel better. Okay, I never do that. I’m just confessing that I am sure I am getting something like that out of watching the spectacle of simulated violence, in ways I’m not always conscious of or often try to rationalize…
But this has changed, because the times have changed, and they have changed me. I feel like I owe it to the moment to reconsider my consumption of violent entertainment. I was struck by the example set late last month by Stephen King, who released an essay called “Guns” and explained why he made the choice to pull his first novel, Rage, about a school shooting, when he learned that a real-life school shooter had read the book. I was struck by comments made by Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story: Asylum, in which he said Sandy Hook had inspired him to rethink how he depicts violence. I respect both storytellers immensely. If these producers are taking a moment to reflect or reconsider their responsibility to the culture, I feel I should do the same as a consumer. Why do I want it? What do I get out of it? What about those who lack the strong minds and morals to properly process and appropriately respond to the material they put in their heads? Assuming I am not one of those people: Do I really need to this kind of funtime violence so much that I can’t live without it – or live with less of it – for even just a short spell for the sake of those who abuse it or are adversely affected by it? Even if we all agree, at the end of this process (such as it is), that there’s no need to change the ways in which we amuse ourselves, I think it’s valuable to be asking and answering these kinds of questions. In fact, maybe the ongoing activity of being more aware, more sensitive about this stuff is the only value we take forward. (To put a finer point on it: I don’t think there should be some 21st century Production Code censoring or regulating how artists or entertainers express themselves. Not that that’s actually on the table. Just saying.)
And by “stuff,” I don’t just mean the spectacle of violence. I also mean the characters that come with these acts of violence – our action heroes. As a parent, I do worry about my kids becoming desensitized to real world violence through exposure to fictional violence (although I don’t worry about such for-fun sensationalism turning them into real-life psychos; I don’t believe pop culture has that much power). But I fret even more their cultural role models, because I do believe that celebrities and the iconic characters they play inform our attitudes about any number of things, like sexuality, body image, justice, respect, what’s funny, what’s lovely, what’s sexy, what’s “cool” and more. In this regard, let’s face it: Our action heroes — lonely and emotionally stunted, glib and violent, hollow and macho, unaffected by the horror they produce (however justified) — have been, at best, problematic examples for boys. My son, 12, is never going to see Bullet To The Head – not now at least – because it’s an R-rated movie and the filmmakers didn’t make it for him. But he and I watch sports on television together, and he’s been exposed to the commercials. So he’s seen Sly be Sly, dishing out death with relish and funny one-liners. He thinks it’s “cool.” He’s curious for more. I have similar mixed feelings when I see Fox marketing A Good Day To Die Hard with the line “Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia.” My first response is… well, laughter. But then I realize why it’s so amusing: Because it’s a riff on one of the most memorable “catchphrases” in action movie history, and how it encouraged a whole generation of young movie-going men to think “motherf—er” was a meaningless, hilarious thing to say. And then I realize I would never want my son thinking or feeling that way. Which is to say: Like his old man, a guy raised on action heroes.
Perhaps you think I’m taking all of this wayyyyyyy too seriously. And you know what? You might be right. But this is part of what we’re all trying to figure out right now, isn’t it? Just how seriously should we be taking “all of this.” In this regard, maybe Bullet To The Head is actually the right movie at the right time: It might help us find the right levels for what’s acceptable right now. And if no one goes to see it, if no one wants to buy what Sly and his family of stone cold (and old) action heroes are selling… well, maybe that should tell us something, too.