POSTED ON FEBRUARY 6, 2013:
Stallone and a Zombie Flick
Movies full of brains, blood & bullets
We've been getting a lot of strong genre efforts in the early days of 2013 and it's been a good couple of weeks if you are a fan of '80s action heroes. Following on the return of The Arnold in the surprisingly fun The Last Stand, his perennial summer counterpart Sylvester Stallone is back and in fine form under the directorial wing of Walter Hill with Bullet to the Head.
While The Last Stand's appeal is probably best enjoyed by the type of fan that digs The Dukes of Hazzard (not that any of them seemed to show up), Bullet's gritty, boilerplate crime tale seems directed straight at the Elmore Leonard set and those with a predilection for well-founded nostalgia.
He Loves Her for Her Brains. Itís an unconventional affair if there ever was one in the girl-loves-zombie story Warm Bodies.
Based on the French graphic novel "Du Plomb dans la Tête," Bullet to the Head finds Sly playing New Orleans hitman, James Bonomo, a leathery, gravel-voiced professional working for a shadowy boss. "Bobo" and his partner, Louis (John Seda, Treme) are contracted to kill a dirty cop, Jack Greely (Holt McCallany, Fight Club) but when the job is done their boss, Mr. Eko -- I mean, Morel (spell check killer, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Lost) -- decides to have their timecards punched by his right-hand man, Keegan (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones), a psychopathic mercenary who does his job more for fun than profit. Keegan gets Louis, but the wily Bobo escapes and immediately crafts plans for lone vengeance.
Until: he crosses paths with Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang, Fast & Furious), a D.C. cop investigating Greely's death in connection with the assassination of his own partner. Kwon puts aside Bobo's many indictable crimes in order to form an uneasy alliance with the grizzled, tattooed and zero-body-fat assassin and find the connection between the killings of their respective colleagues.
Tracking down a shady lawyer, Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater, True Romance) Bobo and Kwon -- which would have made an awesome title for this flick -- discover that Baptiste has a flash drive containing the names and payouts to all of Nola's corrupt cops, judges, and officials, a sort of insurance policy in case Mr. Morel decides Baptiste had become too much of a liability (spoiler: he does) -- and which Morel will stop at nothing to retrieve. Unfortunately, the Italian/Korean duo proves to be much tougher to kill than Morel had ever imagined.
It's really about the simple joys in life and Bullet to the Head is (ahem) loaded with them. Walter Hill is in some of the best form of his late career. Known for some of my favorite films, Hill's resume includes classics like 48 Hrs., The Warriors, Southern Comfort, and a few, weird quasi-misfires that I still love like Crossroads (because I was a Steve Vai fan in the day), Brewster's Millions (because I will die a Richard Pryor fan), and Another 48 Hrs. (because I used to love Eddie Murphy so much that I'll still apologize for that shit).
But the last few years have been rough. 1996's Last Man Standing (a Bruce Willis-starring remake of Yojimbo) was fine but saddled with over-worn material. And after that things got really thin. He even took his name off of his 2000 sci-fi suspense entry, Supernova. Bullet to the Head is his first feature directing job since 2002's, Undisputed.
But with Bullet to the Head, Hill crafts an assertively paced and scripted film that just drips with confident storytelling: a paired down, totally predictable plot executed with the vibrant aplomb of Elmore Leonard and Mamet if they were fed into a sausage maker by John Rambo. Hill's learned eye for action and atmosphere make for some visceral fight scenes, an almost Coen-like grace with abrupt violence and his patented ethos for getting a good, tough-guy chemistry from his performers. In a lot of ways this is 48 Hrs. all over again -- though Kang is no Reggie Hammond -- as the Bobo/Kwon dynamic echoes Nolte and Murphy.
But Stallone is his own thing now. It's his dog-faced legendry while chewing every line with his Brooklyn basso-infused narration and "Yo, I just killed that guy, so what?" swagger like it were Bubble Yum that sells the flick, particularly when he's riffing off of Kang. It's a performance that solidifies the man not just in his well-known, slightly goofy style -- but at what might be the peak of it.
Bullet to the Head is exactly what it needs to be. I'm not kidding about Stallone being perfect at being Stallone, Hill's expert direction of a sinewy, bloody tale, or -- especially -- how much fun it is to see that engine hitting on all cylinders. Nostalgia aside, this flick is awesome.
Silly at times, but awesome.
Oh, Twilight. *shakes fist*
Well, that's not entirely fair to Warm Bodies. The film, or at least its plot, resembles Romeo and Juliet more than anything spawned from Stephanie Meyer's turgid pen. But Warm Bodies is definitely aimed at the same audience: late-tween girls that want to see some Nicholas Sparks-type romance -- albeit with a cute dead guy.
No Ivan Drago. Sly Stallone shows he can still go the distance in Bullet to the Head.
But when these things get burdened with a PG-13 rating (for maximum demographic oomph), the true joys of vampires (nudity and blood) or, in this case, zombies (ridiculously gory violence) are somewhat muted. What does Warm Bodies have left over in the absence of any gleeful gratuitousness?
In a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested Montreal we meet R (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: First Class), who can't remember anything beyond the first letter of his name because he's dead. He's more or less okay with that, though it makes for boring company: a bunch of undead wandering around the airport and going through the motions until they finally to devolve into "bonies," fleshless zombies with a savage thirst for brains.
R has a best friend, M (Rob Corddry, Hot Tub Time Machine) with whom he seems to enjoy a rudimentary but effective form of communication. They get it across to each other that they're getting hungry and they head toward town, a walled-off burg where the few humans left are represented with militaristic assurance by Grigio (John Malkovich, Con Air).
When Grigio's daughter, Julie (Teresa Palmer, The Sorcerer's Apprentice), goes outside of the wall with a team on a supply run, they're attacked by the zombie duo and their groaning brethren. R sees J (get it?) and is instantly smitten; even more so once he eats her boyfriend's brains (Dave Franco, 21 Jump Street) and absorbs not only his memories of her, but what it's like to be human.
Compelled to protect Julie, R takes her back to the airport, where they bond in an abandoned 727 over fruit cocktail and old vinyl (it's R's shrine to how he once lived) and slowly but surely Julie realizes that maybe the undead aren't beyond saving after all.
Based on the hit novel of the same name, Warm Bodies does indeed have a neat hook -- that eating the brains of people will imbue you with their memories and soul. Plenty of people have actually tried it in real life but transposing that bit of gruesome folklore to a teen love story makes for a slightly different take on the sentient zombie motif. And if zombies weren't so completely played out it might even feel fresh.
In fact, Warm Bodies has an amiable sense of humor that isn't too dissimilar from Zombieland, but the aforementioned PG-13 rating really handcuffs what the film can get away with, lending it a watered down vibe that isn't helped by its overused monsters or by its unassuming direction.
Adapted and directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50), Warm Bodies never really nails a consistent tone or a decent balance between conflict and consequence, though really it's the trite reasoning for how the undead soul gets reignited -- and how that works in the films thinly sketched world -- that makes the whole affair feel half-baked and slightly dull. Worse, the threat of the "bonies" is undercut by some really subpar CG work.
Hoult and Corddry were the most fun to watch -- outside of Palmer -- if only because they are struggling to find a nice balance between alive and dead without breaking the illusion. They don't always succeed, which has as much to do with the direction as it does the weird tone Warm Bodies strikes for the first two-thirds of the film -- until it comes to a fairly conventional end. They do their best to elevate it, making for the best scenes in a picture that can't really decide how to fulfill the novelty of its concept.
It's not awful, though. The intent behind it is too sweet and playful to hate and on a technical basis, this is decent mid-budget filmmaking with a few neat -- amongst a bunch of clichéd -- ideas. It's got some fun performances and it doesn't overstay its welcome.
But despite some bright spots, it's hard not to feel like Warm Bodies' best notions were squandered by the limitations of mainstream conventionality.
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