Bullet To The Head

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This latest installment in the post-Expendables renaissance of Sylvester Stallone ticks all the sorts of boxes you might expect from an action star old enough to draw a state pension: there are guns, there are girls, there are explosions, there are rippling, steroid-enhanced muscles, there’s a dunderheaded plot of sorts, there’s even a few choice one-liners (best of which is, undeniably, “You had me at fuck you”). And yet, despite all these key elements dutifully present, Bullet To The Head rarely rises too far beyond mediocrity.

Perhaps it’s down to being lost in translation – the film is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Du Plomb Dans La Tête, which if nothing else provides Stallone with the character name James Bonomo, aka, er, Jimmy Bobo. This yields some unintentionally hilarious dialogue: “Get me Bobo!”, or “Up the stairs, Bobo!”, etc, all delivered with mystifyingly straight faces. Perhaps in French, the name Jimmy Bobo is tough and masculine, not absurd and cuddly as it is in English. Sadly, it’s rather indicative of the film’s wobbly disconnect with the hearty action vintage to which Stallone clearly aspires.

Bobo (seriously, that really is his name) is a tough-as-nails hitman from the wrong side of the tracks, having spent most of his life either in jail or running from the law. We join him on an assassin job with his partner – a job which will unknowingly embroil him in a web of conspiracy and corruption that “goes all the way to the top”. When his partner is murdered, he’s compelled to team up with Asian-American detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), diving headfirst into interracial buddy-cop territory. Stallone and Kang share an awkward and slightly forced chemistry, trading a few spiky barbs where they can, but as with much of this film, it’s all been done before, better.

In fact, Stallone is a curiously anchorless presence here. Without the novelty of an Action Hero Greatest Hits Parade, nor the cosy brand familiarity of a Rocky or a Rambo, Hairdye Sly struggles to confidently carry a film alone. He has a wingspan twice the size of any of his co-stars; carries an eternal grimace on that now quite rubbery face of his; and mumbles every line to the point of extreme imperceptibility. His screen charisma is, at once, overwhelming and underwhelming.

He’s best, of course, when fighting or shooting, and the action sequences hark back, quite deliberately, to Stallone’s trashy pastel-hued glory days – muscles, bullets, conflagrations, and – at one point – axes, flying every which way. When the flare-ups come, they are perfectly serviceable, if bloated and derivative. But director Walter Hill – himself responsible for some timelessly entertaining 1980s romps – seems unsure which direction to take with his lumbering lead. Bullet To The Head has a slim comprehension of its inherent ridiculousness, which ultimately proves its middling, unremarkable downfall.

Bullet To The Head is out on DVD on Monday.

The King of Pigs

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Korean animation has skulked in the shadows for some time: South Korean animation houses have long performed the grunt work for countless popular US cartoons – from The Simpsons onwards – whilst homegrown efforts have always had to compete with the established heritage of the neighbours on the other side of the Sea of Japan. However, a quiet renaissance has occurred over the last few years and the Lord of the Flies-esque The King of Pigs is one such example.

Directed by débutante Sang-ho Yeon, it’s a grim morality tale, mostly told through flashbacks to a violent school classroom. We open on a woman, lying dead on a dining table. This is the wife of Kyung-ming, a depressive CEO, and in the wake of his business collapsing, it is implied that he murdered her. This sudden spark of barbarity compels Kyung-ming to reconnect with his old school friend, the leaden-eyebrowed Jong-Suk, now working as a downtrodden ghostwriter in a publishing company, his personal ambitions fading rapidly. The two men have not spoken in fifteen years, and together they softly recall their troubled years spent in middle school, where the roost is ruled by a triumvirate of bullies, known as the ‘dogs’.

The dogs spend their days delivering savage retribution to the ‘pigs’, the classmates unfortunate enough to be poorer or less intelligent than they. Then along comes Chul, an angry, fearless little boy who dares to challenge this perverse status quo; with Jong-suk and Kyung-ming at his side, he becomes the titular King. Chul, pure raging id, speaks confidently to the boys about accepting the evil that exists in all humans, and for a while it seems that revenge – a favoured theme in South Korean cinema – will rear its head. But this is less a bloody vengeance thriller in the Park Chan-wook mould than it is a bleak social satire on class.

The dogs often whisper of the “school’s atmosphere” being disturbed by the younger boys, and the script delivers biting critiques of the corrupting cancers worming their way through Korean society. The King of Pigs is also depicted in crisp, utilitarian animation, harnessing a neat hybrid of hand-drawn and computer-assisted techniques. You wonder, though, were it not for the brutal child violence, whether the material would be better suited to live-action. Most scenes are dialogue-centred and set in a single classroom. Fared against the ambitious spectacle of its anime cousins, the film is visually unmemorable. As it happens, much of the film struggles to sway your attention.

Yeon’s film builds slowly and surely but hits a midway point of extreme stagnation, and only in its closing minutes attempts a proper climax. Even this dénouement descends into overwrought melodrama for a rather predictable rooftop finale. With its weighty themes of power-plays and aspirational struggles, The King of Pigs has ambitious designs, but it’s ambition that could have furnished a more interesting and consistent story.

The King of Pigs is out on DVD today.

I’m So Excited (about some of these puns)

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This blog has something of a precedent of calling out sickeningly obvious wordplay in film criticism (see here, and here, and also here), but I must say, the film criticism community has come out shining today in reviewing Pedro Almodovar’s smutty airplane-based comedy I’m So Excited. It may be Almodovar’s first flop in years, but if the only positive to come out of the enterprise is that it yielded some sparkling airline-based punnery, then it will not have been for naught. Here are some of my favourites:

“Trousersnakes on a plane.” – Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman

“Certainly one to file under ‘short haul’.” – David Jenkins, Little White Lies

“Giving a whole new meaning to the word ‘cockpit’.” – Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter

“A throwaway airborne farce that never really gets off the ground.” – Alex Dymoke, City AM

“Welcome to Pedro Almodóvar’s economy package deal to Spain.” – Kate Muir, The Times

And the winner by a runaway:

“It’s an extended skit on the various financial and social crises currently unfolding in Almodóvar’s home country: in short, the reign in Spain falls, mainly on the plane.” – Robbie Collin, The Telegraph

*slow clap*

 

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