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Stallone almost one-ups Schwarzenegger with 'Bullet'

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Choppy and bordering on incoherent, “Bullet to the Head” is Sylvester Stallone's answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger's “The Last Stand,” an action exercise in “Here's how we used to do it.”

Sly one-ups Arnold in that old-school regard by bringing in Walter (“48 Hours”) Hill, king of action directors when Stallone was in his glory days - the 1980s.

But “Bullet” isn't remotely as direct as its title. It shows all the hallmarks of a movie that's been re-cut, that changed directors (Wayne Kramer started the film). Characters, relationships and motivations seem shortchanged. And it's every bit as dated and dumb, in different ways, as “The Last Stand.”

Still, Stallone brings the burly and the breezy to this turn as a New Orleans hit man teaming with a cop (Sung Kang) to track down the guys who set him up and got his partner killed.

Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone) has borrowed his “code” from the anti-hero of John Woo's “The Killer” - “No women, no kids.” A hit he carried out led to repercussions. A knife-wielding brute of a mercenary (Jason Momoa) killed his partner, and Jimmy has to do something.

So does this out-of-town cop. Sung Kang often finds work in the films of his pal, Justin Lin (the “Fast and Furious” movies). As Detective Kwon, he steps into the spotlight, and shrinks from it. The editing makes the character an under-motivated mystery. The performance is charisma-free.

It doesn't help that Jimmy and everybody else trot out the race card for the Korean-American cop.

“Don't condescend to me, Kato.” “Nice going, Odd Job.” “I'll be waiting, Confucius.”

But again, this is old school - ethnic actors are for belittling, bad guys are for shooting, and women are for rescuing and gratuitous nude Mardi Gras parties and shower scenes.

The plot has to do with “Crescent City” corruption - they never call New Orleans by name. And Christian Slater's character, a lawyer, should have been named “Mr. Exposition.” He gets to blurt out all the intrigues and conspiracies.

Stallone's Jimmy curses as if he's been saving up for the occasion, growls at his partner's cell phone addiction and makes simple everything Kwon sees as complicated. (“Guns don't kill people. Bullets do.”)

The partners feud, make threats about “when this is over,” and Kwon fails, utterly, to hold up his end of the bargain. When your tough-guy leading man says “You stay here and listen to the radio” whenever he's about to walk into trouble, you might as well have “lightweight” stamped on your head.

But Hill knows how to stage a rumble, and when the hit man and the mercenary tangle with axes, it's epic.

“Bullet to the Head” was chopped down so that Stallone might have a prayer of holding the picture together, and it's a credit to his still-formidable screen presence that, whatever weak links surround him, he almost pulls it off.

Roger Moore is a film critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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