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January 31, 2013

‘Bullet to the Head’: Walter Hill on Stallone, ‘anti-buddy’ movies

Posted in: Movies

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Sylvester Stallone, left, and Jason Momoa in a scene from "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

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Director Walter Hill, left, and Sylvester Stallone on the set of "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

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Director Walter Hill, left, Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang on the set of "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

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Sarah Shahi and Sylvester Stallone star in "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

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Sylvester Stallone, left, and Jason Momoa in a scene from "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

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Christian Slater, left, and Sylvester Stallone in a scene from "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

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Sylvester Stallone, left, and Sung Kang in a scene from "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

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Director Walter Hill attends the premiere of "Bullet to the Head" on Jan. 29 in New York. (Jason Szenes / European Pressphoto Agency)

In the shoot’em-up action thriller “Bullet to the Head,” which reaches theaters Friday, Sylvester Stallone portrays Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo, a New Orleans hit man with a perma-scowl, Technicolor sleeve tattoos and an unshakable live-and-let-die moral code.

When his murder-for-hire wingman is whacked after a job – part of a setup by the guys who hired them – Bobo enters into a reluctant partnership of convenience with by-the-book police Det. Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang of “Fast Five” and “Live Free or Die Hard” fame) to button-hole the responsible parties – and exact no small amount of gritty street justice in the process.

The odd couple’s odyssey across the Crescent City underworld comes locked and loaded with explosive set pieces: a bloody parking garage shoot-out, a honky-tonk knife fight, an exploding bayou ambush and a climactic ax fight scene between Stallone and a mob strongman played by Jason Momoa (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) in an abandoned warehouse among them.

“Bullet to the Head” also arrives as the first film in over a decade from journeyman action movie director Walter Hill. The film and TV veteran, who won a 2004 Emmy for directing the celebrated, cerebral HBO western “Deadwood,” is of course the cinematic force who paired Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in “48 Hrs.” in 1982, wrote and directed “The Warriors,” produced Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and crafted the 1984 movie musical-cum-cult hit “Streets of Fire.”

The straight-shooting Hill, 71, spoke to Hero Complex at length about action moviedom, his “semi-retirement” from the industry and the long-gestating reboot of his most famous movie hit.

Hero Complex: How did you come to direct “Bullet to the Head”?

Walter Hill: When Sly and I first talked about doing it, I told him I thought if we did it as an homage to ’70s or ’80s action films – and if he got a haircut and if we played it not at some nuclear level and left a little room for humor – everything would probably work out. I mean, this is one of those plots.

HC: What do you mean ‘one of those plots’?

Director Walter Hill attends the premiere of "Bullet to the Head" on Jan. 29, 2013 in New York. (Jason Szenes / EPA)

Walter Hill attends the New York premiere of “Bullet to the Head.” (Jason Szenes / EPA)

WH: You know, in terms of the real world, they’re fairly preposterous. But that’s OK. That’s part of the given. As long as you don’t break the rules and contradict yourself within that sensibility, people go for the ride.

HC: This is certainly a genre film that makes no apologies for being a genre film. You know the tropes so well.

WH: Music to my ears!

HC: You know the vernacular of genre so it seems like you can have fun with it.

WH: That was certainly the idea. I don’t want to be dismissive. There’s certainly a lot of work that goes into these things. We’re not breaking new ground. We’re trying to be entertaining within a format that’s familiar. There’s a kind of ice skating that goes on where you must let the audience know that you’re not taking yourself too seriously. But at the same time, the jokes are funny but the bullets are real. The jeopardy has to be real. When it gets outlandish, there needs to be no drift into parody – self-parody, maybe inevitable for old directors. I wanted to stage a personal mano a mano between Jason and Sly. And so you needed something to take the edge off the preposterousness of the – I’ve gone back to that word again, haven’t I? – the unlikelihood of one having the physical advantage over the other. “What are we, vikings?” That type of thing.

Sylvester Stallone, left, and Jason Momoa in a scene from "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

Sylvester Stallone, left, and Jason Momoa in a scene from “Bullet to the Head.” (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

HC: Your films have definitely had some memorable pairings over the years: Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in “48 Hrs.,” Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi in “Red Heat.” Why did you think Sly would team up well with Sung Kang? Is it because they are so different?

WH: I thought it was a kind of dramatic contrast that would fuel the thing. People always jump on you about buddy movies. Mine are anti-buddy movies. They don’t like each other. They’re not going to like each other. The most they’re going to achieve by the end is a kind of grudging respect. I’m just comfortable with that. It seems to be an inherently more dramatic situation than if they’re friendly and they get along and respect each other. Also, frankly, it gives you better avenue to work in humor. These things have to be leavened with humor. It actually reinforces the action.

HC: You’ve got Sly in this film, Arnold’s new movie “The Last Stand” came out last month. And Bruce Willis’ “A Good Day to Die Hard” is coming out next week. Why do you think 80s action movie stars are suddenly having a renaissance?

WH: The real truth is these movies are all foreign driven. They need domestic releases. If the economics are right, people feel like they can be commercial in a reasonable way domestically. But they’re really foreign driven. This movie would not exist without expectation of the foreign audience being vastly greater than the domestic. I suspect the other films that you’re talking about, the same thing applies.

GRAPHIC: ’80s action heroes reload

HC: Nic Cage owes a lot of his box office clout to the foreign market too. How do you feel about putting out a movie that’s going to be a bigger deal overseas than it is here?

WH: [laughs] Well, I look at something like “Bullet to the Head” – a title I expected to be changed. The irony of it is, I suppose, self-apparent. I didn’t think it was going to stand up to the politically correct test that gets applied to everything these days. It’s a direct translation from the French graphic novel.

Director Walter Hill, left, and Sylvester Stallone on the set of "Bullet to the Head." (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

Director Walter Hill, left, and Sylvester Stallone on the set of “Bullet to the Head.” (Frank Masi / Warner Bros.)

HC: You used the word “preposterous” a couple of times to describe this film. The fact remains, you hadn’t directed a movie in more than a decade until “Bullet to the Head” came along. What compelled you to take this project on?

WH: A call from Sly. I hadn’t stopped directing. I’d done several things for American television. I guess you would say I was semi-retired – or semi-retired by the industry. Sly and I have known each other for probably 35 years. I have always been a great admirer of Sly’s. Most directors love movie stars because they’re such fabulous tools to tell stories with. Sly is an actor but he’s a star and he’s been a star for a very long time. When he sent me this, there was a feeling on both our parts, that if this was ever going to happen – us working together – we better sit down and do it. Time is moving on.

HC: What kind of direction did you give him?

WH: We had a good shoot. I told him to play things more casually. I wanted him to play his natural personality as much as possible. He’s a very engaging guy. I told him, “I’m not interested in you inventing a character as much as imagining yourself as character.” He went right with that. I give him the credit.

HC: Sly’s “Expendables” films were popular. But apart from that, nothing he’s released in a while has been a hit. And Schwarzenegger’s most recent film tanked. We can agree that marketing a movie starring an 80s action hero can be difficult nowadays. How daunting is that for you?

WH: I’ve been around for a while now, to say the least. The marketing is tricky. Coming out Super Bowl weekend is a bit on the daunting side for an action film as well.

Director Walter Hill on the set of "Bullet to the Head." (Warner Bros.)

Director Walter Hill on the set of “Bullet to the Head.” (Warner Bros.)

HC: People have been talking about remaking “The Warriors” for years now. How strange is that for you? Is it flattering or insulting?

WH: There’s nothing I can do about it one way or another. I don’t own it. I’m not against taking certain stories that are good stories and remaking or reimagining them — if there’s some reason for it beyond you’re looking for a job and would like to get paid. If you can bring something to make it special. Just to reproduce something is not interesting or credible. I am not party to all that has been done to try to get this up. They announce it every other year. Larry Gordon, the great producer and my friend who I did many films with, who produced “The Warriors,” told me they’ve spent three times as much money trying to produce the thing, to get it into shape to shoot, as we spent to make the entire movie. There’s that Billy Wilder thing – I’m sounding very genial and generous – when they remade “Sabrina,” he said, “What did I do wrong?” I don’t deny you have a little of that feeling.

HC: So you give it your blessing?

WH: You can interpret this in different ways. You tell me you’re going to remake “The Warriors”? I say: “Good luck!”

– Chris Lee

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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