Review of Bullet to the Head, Directed by Walter Hill
By COYLE NEAL
This movie is a combination of the original graphic novel and all previous Stallone movies (except possibly that soccer one). And… I don’t actually think I’m exaggerating much. In addition to the cameo photograph from the Rambo series, the plot is basically an average thug (Rocky) who works as an assassin (The Specialist and Assassins), doesn’t play by the rules (Cobra), but still manages to punch his way to justice (Tango and Cash and Judge Dredd) while dropping one-liners (Demolition Man) and avenging his dead partner (Cliffhanger , Get Carter, and Rocky III) , all in the face of a corrupt system (Cop Land and most of his other movies).
In other words, there are many reasons to enjoy this movie. Not the least of which is the appeal of a film where an individual fights for justice alone—and even against the very institutions which have failed to do so. I’m tempted to say that there has been a glut of these sorts of movies on the market, but honestly I suspect this is more of a recurring theme in American cinema than a modern development. Which raises interesting questions to think about especially for us as Christians: who is responsible for enforcing justice? If the state fails are we allowed to pick up the slack? Just what is “justice” anyway? (It always comes back to Plato in the end.)
Bullet to the Head forces these questions down our throats. On the one hand, we have the unfortunately nicknamed “Jimmy Bobo” (Stallone) who pursues his own form of instant and absolute justice—you can guess from the title what form it takes—as he shoots his way up the underworld ladder to the people who betrayed him and killed his friend. On the other hand is Taylor Kwon, the well-intentioned but bumbling cop who holds true to the “system” even as he sees both its incompetence and its inherent corruption.
Which is, I think, the basic dichotomy set up by most films in this vein—do we endorse the legitimate-but-inept-or-even-wicked system, or the illegitimate-but-effective-vigilante? All of the questions listed above are eventually subsumed under this basic “individual vs. society” conflict.
As Christians, I think we have the advantage of being able to step back a bit from questions like this and suggest that there is some truth and some error to both options. For example, we can say that both society and individuals are responsible for pursuing justice: society as a result of the Divine mandate to do good, and individual people as a result of the Divine mandate to image God. At the same time, we can recognize that both society and individuals are corrupted by sin, and hence ultimately incapable of pursuing that justice. So when we see a movie like Bullet to the Head, we can both denounce Kwon’s over-reliance on the legitimacy of the system and Bobo’s [spoiler alert] torturing and administering to Christian Slater an otherwise well-deserved bullet to the head.
Instead of looking for justice in either corrupt society or sinful individuals we look to the salvation worked on the cross, where God executed His own Son in an act of perfect justice against the sins of all those who repent and believe, and to the promise of the Second Coming, when perfect justice will be realized as the rule of corrupt institutions and sinful man is replaced with perfect government. Until then, we can encourage government to be more just while working on being more just in our own lives.
Also until then, we can enjoy cheesy Stallone movies and the wonderful one-liners they deliver.
Dr. Coyle Neal lives in Washington DC, where he refuses to take a hard stance on vigilantism, despite often enjoying it in the movies.