An online exclusive CityArts critics discussion of Walter Hill’s comeback

Bullet to the Head is an event. It is director Walter Hill’s first theatrical film since 2002’s Undisputed and the most meaningful Sylvester Stallone acting vehicle since Rocky. On this occasion I discuss the significance of Bullet to the Head with CityArts film critic Gregory Solman, author of the definitive essay on Hill’s oeuvre, as a good movie, an essay on masculinity and an advance in contemporary cinema aesthetics.

bullet-to-the-head- stallone momoaAW: Stallone’s performance as career hitman Jimmy Bobo reminded me of Charles Bronson’s streetfighter in Hill’s directorial debut Hard Times. The same grizzled features, the same masculine ethos. The plot of Bobo teaming up with policeman Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang) recalled Hill’s buddy movie 48 HRS. Hill and Stallone’s cinema histories are combined, the action genre is updated.

GS: It’s the ideal comparison, I agree, because Hill makes the essential emotional connections to character lesser directors ignore–directors, I might add, who are all worse at directing action than Hill, yet are no better than him with actors. I like reminding people that when Bronson’s performance stunned everyone in Hard Times, it was Bronson’s 60th movie–and Hill’s first. I won’t forget Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing, either. Stallone’s saturnine mood and weathered face are alone more interesting than his revivals of Rocky and Rambo combined, because Hill understands the power of genre and, more than anyone else in contemporary filmmaking, takes to heart F. Scott Fitzgerald’s crystalline bromide: “Action is character.” Have new filmmakers learned from Hill in Exile, or from Neveldine/Taylor, for that matter?

AW: Hill in Exile is an interesting way to describe the past decade of inept action movies. From David Fincher to Steve Soderbergh and the Bourne movies, most filmmakers don’t know how to film action with meaning or action heroes with ethics. Despite the aesthetic advances made by Luc Besson and his cadre of action-wizards like Olivier Megaton and Pierre Morel, Hill has been sorely missed. Remember the pop culture fun of Streets of Fire which updated pop nostalgia and genre refinement?

GS: It was cinematic celebration from start to finish, and gets at Hill’s great advance in comic-book form. The sledge-hammer fight anticipates the fire-axe battle between Bobo and mercenary Keegan (Jason Momoa), but beneath that lies the inevitability of one-on-one confrontation between, in this story, the two breeds of ex-military mercenary, Bobo and Keegan, who has an embittered idealism defined by codes of manhood. He reminds me of that saying that resentment is drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die. That dynamic was undeniable in Undisputed, too, between the two unbeaten boxers in prison. They were going to fight, no matter what the stakes, as a matter of manly pride. To make an auteur observation, I trace the origins of that pure challenge–deconstructed, abstracted, right on the surface where it can be enjoyed, rather than sublimated–to Howard Hawks (though there are undoubtedly antecedents) and El Dorado. You might remember that from the beginning John Wayne and Christopher George are going to shoot it out, they both know it, and accept it as part of the code of gunslingers. That runs through innumerable Hill climaxes, in subtle but distinct variations.

AW: This movie has the best dialogue in years. There’s old-time Hollywood wisdom in Bobo’s summation “You expect cops to be what they are.” Stallone, by the way, has never been so strong. He hasn’t worked with a good director since Norman Jewison on F.I.S.T. Hill knows how make a few words matter. He evokes personal ethics and sums up genre ethics.

GS: He brought back his signature single-exchange scenes, too, which I love. I’m not a fan of Bobo’s final, or rather, penultimate riposte [“That’ll be the day”], though I like the recapitulation of Jack Cates-the-cop in 48 HRs. in Kwon’s challenge, and imagine Bobo to be a fan of John Wayne in general, Ethan Edwards in particular. To be clear, it’s not the line itself, or the association, but it strikes me as an over-articulation. The John Wayne reference was clear at the end of the firehouse scene, when Hill pictures Bobo from behind, a little sullen and broken, but with still a little swagger, as he leaves the fight scene. That’s especially so, because only our generation of film critics would even make those connections in the first place. Those references are lost on youth.

AW: I disagree. The Searchers is a famous cinema touchstone. I love that Hill rescued Wayne’s line from a pedestal. Bullet to the Head reminds me of how modern action movies can express contemporary ideas about law, virtue, manliness, morality. Hill, as always, compares genre tradition to contemporary ethical crises. He challenges the superficiality of films by Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Andrew Dominik and the already forgotten Paul Greengrass who all submit to the hollow graphic novel tradition. Imagine how precise and authentic Hill would have made Killing Them Softly or There Will Be Blood.–films that are inconceivable without Last Man Standing or The Long Riders. Hill probably would have had the common sense not to make them at all.

GS: You convinced me! The relationship of the movie to a graphic novel is intriguing, because I suspect Hill’s body of work is now, rightly, a dominant influence on pulp (well, for anyone smart) as it has influenced countless movies, good and godawful. I appreciate what I’m calling the “muzzle-flash” transitions, because I’ve never seen it before, and it was of a piece with the opening credits, the bullet exploding through the titles. I know that Hill is not predisposed to the director’s cut mentality, so I can’t explain why he did this (not that it’s bad or corrupting), but when he revisited The Warriors he added graphic-novel freeze frames that were very arresting visually. Oddly, I like them but I don’t like that he did it because (a) I’m famously, obstinately, and possibly stupidly a purist when it comes to that sort of thing, (b) there is a low-budget quality to the movie—for example, The Warriors pictured in the subway fooling around, with no dialog on the track, a sure sign of editorial vamping—that ought to be embraced, and (c) he’d advanced that art form by the mid ’80s. Nothing tops the transitional effects in Streets of Fire, which remind me of the shadows cast by elevated trains.

AW: In formal terms Nolan, Tarantino, Soderbergh, Dominik, even Kathryn Bigelow are pikers compared to Walter Hill. Put the Scott Brothers (the late Tony, the aesthetically dead Ridley in this category, too). Their images lack Hill’s vivacity and creativity. What about that credit sequence bullet or the beautiful scene transitions and startling action montages?

GS: And speaking of new imagery, I’ve seen a thousand film noir and tough-guy movies, and never once seen, from the perspective of the dying man under water, the bad guy’s gun being tossed in after him. It’s rich, imagining that as the last thing the double-crossing son of a bitch saw.

AW: Hill visualizes his moral p.o.v., something he learned from Peckinpah. He’s able to enrich narrative visually which is why he can make a 90-minute movie have meaning and not meander like Bigelow and contemporary filmmakers who dawdle, unsure of where they stand morally. Bullet is an exciting exploration of post-9/11 morality. Hill is the father of modern adepts Neveldine-Taylor and John Moore and Paul W.S. Anderson. They all know how to make movies be kinetic and moral. The torture of Christian Slater scene feels Godardian, as if it were an instantaneous critique of very confused Zero Dark Thirty as well as the puerile Reservoir Dogs.

GS: As I know you know, Hill got that lesson on length from his friendship with one of our favorites, Jacques Demy, who told Hill that Americans had forgotten that they’d discovered the ideal length of a movie is 85 minutes. What did you think of Hill’s return to the Hard Times and Johnny Handsome setting of the New Orleans underworld—or maybe it’s the tolerated overworld.

AW: By “Overworld” do you mean the world we deal with? The post-9/11 world where money and ethics collide? To me that is the central issue in Bullet. Hill faces it. Stallone faces it. So does his daughter played by Sarah Shahi, a tattoo artist who represents the era’s body mortification—part of the physical poignance that distinguishes Hill’s violent set-pieces. His fights aren’t simply about sensation but about emotional expression. This sensibility is also apparent in Steve Mazzaro’s amazing guitar-harmonic score which pays homage to Ry Cooder and surpasses him! That’s the kind of modernist artist Hill has always been; refining an art form we take for granted as in his best films Geronimo: An American Legend, The Warriors, Undisputed and The Long Riders.

GS: Did you notice that Shahi has a hint of Deborah Van Valkenburgh in The Warriors? Hill exercises his own version of Eisensteinian typage. I appreciate that she was kind of a rough character herself–the cat tattoo reads like a scar–and that the men in her tattoo trade rose to defend her, however ineffectually. So often the genre insists on the rough hewn hero’s daughter being a dainty, smart and sweet contrast. I liked seeing her as a consequence of Bobo’s life, not just a plot device, and her being more real made me root for her rescue more, not less. Again, I felt emotionally connected to her, rather than simply attracted.

AW: The Hillian woman is like the Hawksian woman, an androgynous figure of moral probity. Imagine what Hill would have done with Zero Dark Thirty! He would have made it the great movie people pretend it to be. I enjoyed Bullet for its visual richness and moral detail. We’ve forgotten that movies could accomplish this.

GS: I’m glad that Walter hasn’t.

AW: If Bullet to the Head is the hit it deserves to be—it really does feel like the best American movie for past couple of years–maybe everyone else will remember as well.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

Photo: Stallone and Jason Momoa in Bullet to the Head