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"It's hard to get these things started," says Walter Hill, the dean of the American action movie, speaking to me from Los Angeles. "Action films are by their very nature more expensive than what are sometimes called, in the independent world, 'relationship films.' But I despise these categories. I've never made a movie I didn't think was about a relationship."
Bullet to the Head, Hill's first theatrically released feature in 11 years, is no exception. An action exercise that's pure panache from the neon-lit opening credits, it uses its blunt rib-cracking set pieces not only to sock it to the popcorn buyers, but also as crucibles to test the codes that its characters live by.
Hill began his feature-filmmaking career with 1975's Depression-era bare-knuckle boxing saga Hard Times and seemed to have ended it with another boxing pic, 2002's fighting-fit Undisputed. In between there was The Warriors, Eddie Murphy's coming out in 48 Hrs., the "rock-'n'-roll fable"–cum–cult object Streets of Fire, neo-noir treatments Johnny Handsome and Trespass. And though Hill's '90s Westerns (Geronimo, Wild Bill) led him to success on the small screen in the aughts — directing the pilot of HBO's Deadwood and the Robert Duvall miniseries Broken Trail for AMC — until now, no new movies were forthcoming.
"The desirability of hiring directors over 60 is fairly diminished in this marketplace," Hill says. "At the same time, I hadn't had a good-sized hit in quite a while. And, frankly, I went through a couple of experiences that left me pretty disgusted with it all, and I was thinking the time had passed. I was just sitting at home reading magazines and looking out the window — a couple of projects I had had just fallen apart — when I got a call from Sly, who had sent me a script."
Sly, of course, is Sylvester Stallone. The basis of the script that would become Hill and Stallone's Bullet to the Head was a French graphic novel, Du Plomb Dans La Tête — the title is a literal translation. And though Hill, somewhat atypically, does not carry a screenwriting credit on Bullet, the film feels almost like an anthology of his life's work: Thrown together by violent circumstance, Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang are teamed as a hitman and a cop inflexibly true to their clashing, antithetical professional codes, as in Hill's Red Heat or 48 Hrs. The loping blues riffs will be as familiar to the filmmaker's fans as the Louisiana setting of Hard Times and Southern Comfort, from which Hill admits he copped a line for Bullet: "Sometimes you gotta abandon your principles and do what's right." Even a brawl in an enclosed bathroom recalls one in The Warriors.
"To me, it was kinda like shaking hands with an old friend who you run into," Hill says. "We made the movie for, by the modern standards, not very much money, and very quickly. I can't tell you this was the biggest swing at the ball that I ever took or anything, but I'm fond of it."
The faultlessly genial Hill tends toward such self-deprecation. Discussing Stallone's surprisingly subtle, low-key performance, I mention Hill's fondness for "laconic" leading men. He hears "comic," and responds: "Somebody said to me my movies are always funny as long as they're not comedies. I'm not sure I don't agree with that." Bullet to the Head, he says, is "an homage to action films of the '70s and '80s," "a good night out."
But being a good night out doesn't mean vacuity, and when discussing the various warrior creeds at work in Bullet, Hill shows his respect for the foundational values of character. "I don't want to make it sound like it's Lincoln-Douglas or something," Hill continues, now starting to analyze the dynamic between Stallone and Kang's tough guys. "But their debate seems to me to be the core of the movie." Of Jason Momoa's hired killer, Keegan, a distorted mirror image of Stallone's cop, Hill says,"He's almost a full representative of the argument — I guess it's in Republic, isn't it? Thrasymachus, he's talking to Socrates, and he says: 'What is justice? Justice is all things to the stronger.'" Hill continues along these lines, dropping a "Nietzschean übermensch," before catching himself: "I'd be the first to say that we're probably reading far too much into this."
For all this high-mindedness, Hill acknowledges that the pleasures of action movies are "not quite adult." "Most action films are dreadful," he says. "But good ones are really wonderfully good, because they can exemplify human beings in what probably is their finest quality, which is courage, the ability to live up to your standards or try to get beyond your standards."
While sci-fi and superheroes dominate the contemporary box office, Hill identifies himself with the "old, traditional, 'Can we get the dynamite under the dam and cut off the retreat of the advancing army?'" action film. A moralist at heart, Hill uses the action film as few younger filmmakers of the sensory-assault school care to, espousing the virtues of stoicism, thrift and contingency to survive in a fallen world. I suggest to him that his films, abounding with moments of commiseration between have-nots and prideful self-reliance, show a basically Depression outlook — despite him being born in 1942. "All of the adults that I grew up with were absolutely marked by the Depression — my parents, my family, everybody that I knew. This was something that loomed very large in their consciousness. In fact, I think we're getting sadly reacquainted with it."
Lest this make Bullet to the Head sound like a slog, it should be noted that any heavy themes that rear up are lightened with strokes of humor. But even in discussing these fillips, Hill betrays his profound regard for his material. "It's a very dangerous bit of ice-skating," he says. "If the filmmaker isn't taking the story seriously, why the hell should the audience?"
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