We head to New Orleans to visit the set of Bullet to the Head, starring Sylvester Stallone
I'm a big proponent of meaningful movie titles. That's not to say that there has to be some deep-seated, thoughtful meaning behind a title, but it has to mean something, unlike a movie such as Rush Hour, whose title comes from an arbitrary line uttered in the first act. When I hear about a movie like Bullet to the Head, I know immediately what to expect: fight scenes, gunplay, general badass-ness, and the like. Bullet to the Head is not a movie guys will take their girlfriends to. Teenage girls will not wait in line for days on end to see Bullet to the Head on February 1. Bullet to the Head is a motherf*&%ing ACTION movie, and a throwback action movie at that.
Back in August 2011, I was invited to New Orleans to visit the set of this action-thriller starring Sylvester Stallone, although sadly we did not get a chance to speak with the action legend during our visit. We did get to see him perform in a few scenes, and at 66 years of age, he may just be in the best shape of his life. Sly stars as Jimmy Bobo, a New Orleans assassin whose partner is killed by the brutal Keegan (Jason Momoa). At the same time, Washington D.C. detective Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang) is in town trying to find the man who killed his former partner, and just like that, the hitman and the cop form an unsteady alliance to find the man responsible for making them both partner-less. Here's what Sung Kang had to say, giving us an expanded version of that plot rundown.
"I play Taylor Kwan, who is a Washington D.C. detective. And I'm here to investigate my former partner's shady activities in New Orleans. My ex-partner was kicked off the force, he went blackmailed politicians who were lobbying in D.C., so he moved out to New Orleans to cause havoc, hang out with hookers, take drugs, and leech off these politicians who are feeding him blackmail money. So, I've been sent to stop him, and when I show up, I realize he's already been taken out by a hitman, hired by a local faction, and that hitman is Jimmy Bobo and his partner. His partner gets wiped out, so he and I, we team up, totally opposites, but we are forced to team up to find the guys who killed our partners."
The first scene we watched involved a lot of gunplay, right off the bat! Jason Momoa's Keegan walks into a room full of six armed men, calmly asking for the combination to a safe. After killing five of the men, he asks the last man to give him the combination, which he does... just before Keegan finishes him off. Shortly after this scene, we saw one of the "deceased" actors walk by, his wardrobe stained with fake blood from the squibs. For some demented reason, this brought a smile to my face. It surprised me to learn that this was Jason Momoa's first film where he had to fire a gun, and no, that's not counting the laser he brandished as Ronon Dex in Stargate: Atlantis.
"Well it was the first time I ever shot a gun. My character on Stargate: Atlantis, I had a laser beam. It was pretty hard. I looked like an idiot putting it in there. So this is my first time with the gun stuff. I have never played a villain before. I wanted him to be this sick, charming, sadistic psycho with an air of elegance."
The plot thickens, as they say, even more in Bullet to the Head when Keegan kidnaps Jimmy Bobo's daughter Lisa, played by Sarah Shahi. The actress, best known for her starring role on the USA Network series Fairly Legal, broke down the complex relationship between Jimmy and Lisa.
"We have an estranged relationship. I play a tattoo artist. He was very in and out of my life as a child. He comes to me and needs some help. Taylor, Sung's character, gets shot and I did a year of med school. I'm a very talented girl. What haven't I done? I'm also a vet, a country singer and a dancer! So he comes to me for some help and this isn't the first time this has happened. The kind of relationship we have, he only comes to me when he wants something. I'm not too happy when I see him because I know what this is about. I kind of get pulled along into the storyline from that point on. The thing that I love so much about my character is that I'm the only girl in the movie, more or less, but I'm the only character in the movie that gives Sly shit and he has to take it. Because I'm his daughter. Any other character that gives him shit gets a bullet to the head."
At the helm of this action romp is the legendary Walter Hill, the director behind classics such as The Driver, The Warriors, 48 Hours, and Brewster's Millions. This Walter Hill's first film since 2002's Undisputed (which I thought was quite underrated), and one that finally brings him together with the actor he has wanted to work with for 30 years: Sylvester Stallone.
"I had kind of surrendered. I had been trying to get him to do a movie for about 30 years, and we could never make it work out. He and I have bumped into each other over the years. We have had several meetings, trying to work things out. He and I both have the same lawyer, so we would see each other at various social events as well. I'm certainly very aware that he's directed probably 10 movies, but I don't know what you do about that. I think anybody that's been an actor as long as he has, and a great star as long as he has, is very knowledgeable about the picture business, but I only know one way to direct. He and I get along very well. I like him a lot. I think he's two things. He's a very good actor, and he's a star. Both of those are very considerable. I think everything understands about him being a star. I don't think everybody totally appreciates how good an actor he is. Actors often get judged by material, as well as their abilities, and I think he's giving, in my opinion, a very good performance in this film. This one is more character-driven than, I think, some of his other dramas."
Oftentimes, there are quirky nuances about a production that I tend to notice on the set. The one colorful idiosyncrasy I'll always remember from the Bullet to the Head set is "Too much prosciutto," a line of direction Walter Hill gives when his actors "ham" it up too much or take things a bit too far. Jason Momoa discussed one such instance, where he was trying to whistle the catchy theme from The Andy Griffith Show after one of Keegan's killing spree's.
"He says it to me a lot, because I try throw a lot of ham in there. I definitely like my prosciutto. Like, for instance, on one, where I shoot everyone, at the very end of it, I start whistling after I just completely murder everyone. That's from The Andy Griffith Show. I did that and he's like, 'Don't do that. We can't get the rights to that.' So then I did Guns 'n' Roses' 'Patience' on the second take. I just like the idea of, 'It's just another day at the office,' killing five guys and I'm whistling on my way out."
When asked to comment on his hammy line of direction, Walter Hill explained that it's all a part of the job, although he tries to be as polite as possible.
"Sometimes people, in their desire to please you and their desire to do good, have a tendency to overdo it. That's one of our jobs is to pull it back to the range you think is appropriate to the film. Sometimes, the very best acting is just people talking to each other. It's the old joke of, 'Don't get caught acting.' If you get caught acting, you're not acting very well. I use little phrases, here and there. I'm polite with that."
Another colorful aspect of the film, quite literally, are the tattoos that have to be applied to Sarah Shahi for three hours a day ("When everyone else rolls in at 7, I'm here at 4"). The actress was allowed to choose what kind of tattoos she would have, and revealed she did some research into what kinds of tattoos women are getting these days.
"She's a modern girl. I wanted to pick out something that was reflective of what's going on now with girls and tattoos. I went to some tattoo shops, looked at some pictures and spent about six hours reading magazines. Cupcakes were very popular. I have a cupcake on my ass. Sweet cheeks. In the storyline they wanted to have a cat, so I have kind of like a jaguar. The other thing that's really popular is leopard prints or cheetah prints. A lot of girls have those as a filler. My fillers in between all my tats are all cheetah prints."
I have traveled to New Orleans a half dozen times over the past few years for various film and TV set visits. Bullet to the Head, however, is the first production I visited that was shot in and also set in New Orleans, instead of doubling it for another city. Sung Kang spoke about getting to shoot in the Crescent City, although the cuisine may be almost too good.
"This city is so appreciative of the film industry being here, and the producers love being here. It's always on everyone's list, like what's New Orleans like? I think people have a pre-conceived idea like it's just Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. But really, there's so much culture, the music's great, the food's great. It's not good for the waistline! But I'm actually from the South, I'm from Georgia, so the weather doesn't bother me. It's pretty comfortable for me. And really, I have no complaints at all. I would love to come back here. It's my favorite city I've ever shot in, for long term stay. I'm going to miss it. And I'm glad that the rebates are so high, and there are so many films here, because I feel like I probably will be back here to film."
Sarah Shahi had a different take on the amenities New Orleans has to offer, including copious amounts of libations, although she did take in several other local destinations.
"The pros and cons are the same. Its greatest strength is it's greatest weakness. Or it's my greatest weakness I should say. Alcohol. There's lots to do in the city, but the thing I gravitate towards most is drinking. With anybody who will have a drink with me. Sometimes I don't even need anybody. But coming from LA where bars close at 2 AM, it's like there are drive-thru daiquiri shops. Are you serious? I see those more than I see Lutheran churches here. But what can I tell you? I've been to museums. I've seen every movie at the IMAX at the aquarium. The World War II museum is pretty great. I did a swamp tour! That was fabulous. It's beautiful. I held an alligator. It's what you do."
One of the scenes that we have been seeing in all of the trailers and TV spots is the axe fight between Jimmy and Keegan. Jason Momoa described this brutal scene, which clearly seemed to be one of the highlights of the shoot for this hulking actor.
"At the very end there's a big axe fight, and it's fucking great. It's in a dilapidated building after I kill everyone. [Stallone] is looking around, I've kidnapped his daughter, and I have all these guns and stuff. And I say, 'Ready for another round?' I throw the bags of guns away, and there's this plaque - 'the people who tried to save this building' - and there are two fire axes. So I basically smash that thing open and grab the axes. He shot me a couple of times by surprise. I had a Kevlar vest. I throw him the axe, and he says, 'What are we, Vikings?' We start going like a Cuisinart."
Later in the day, we moved to an indoor pool set, that was being used for an underwater fight scene between Jimmy and Taylor. The scene takes place on the shore outside Jimmy's safe house in the Louisiana bayou, which Jimmy had to blow up to take out a cadre of baddies. Despite the sweltering heat, both outside and inside this heated pool set, Sylvester Stallone was doing his best to keep the mood light, cracking jokes between takes and splashing other crew members on the side of the pool. Sung Kang also talked about the level of humor in this odd-couple relationship between Jimmy and Taylor, comparing it to Walter Hill's 48 Hours.
"Oh yeah. We hate each other! We're so different in every way, we're different generations, ethnic background. Everything that comes out of his mouth is like old-school racial slur. You know, Charlie Chan this, samurai this, and everything out of my mouth is like 'Hey, at least I speak English, you sound like you have marbles in your mouth.' You know 'Kumbayya, yabba dabba do. You're a criminal, you're a greaseball! I'm a cop! I have integrity! I have morals, what are you? You're a petty crook and a killer.' It's very much redefining that whole 48 Hours dynamic between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. But in the past, any time there was an Asian in a film, let's say, opposite an African-American, the jokes were always on the Asian guy. Like, 'You don't speak English!' 'What do you do, kung fu?' It's more making fun of his ethnicity, but he couldn't return it. But this is more acceptable, because it's this old-school guy in his 60s, and it's a guy's guy kind of thing. He also does dirty work for a living, and his goggles of the world, he sees an Asian guy, he thinks whatever, you're Chinese. Ching Chong. Vietnamese. Whatever. I'm this new generation Asian-American that speaks English, that's overachieving, that's athletic, that is also three-dimensional, sexual. Women find him attractive. I can stand up for my own. You put these two people together, and it's water and oil, and you shake it up, and it becomes humorous. It's really funny."
The main thing I was most unaware of regarding this project, before stepping onto the set, was that it is based on a French graphic novel by Alexis Nolent. Walter Hill revealed that, despite the violent nature of this adaptation, the graphic novel is "colder" than the film.
"I'd say that the general proposition of the movie is very much in the sense of the graphic novel. Had there not been a graphic novel, none of us would be here. A lot of the narrative concerns, and the approaches to character... I'd say the biggest thing is that the graphic novel is probably a little tougher and a little colder than what we're doing. I'm not consciously emulating the visual style of the graphic novel. That's fair to say."
"The most exciting scene was where I tamper with Jimmy's gun, so he's not able to fire. I'm trying to stop him from killing people around me, because I am actually a cop, and I can't just be witnessing these things. But he just shoots everyone in the face! So I mess with his gun, and we're walking out, and we're talking, and he just turns around, and BLAM! Slams me in the gut! Actually, after I went home, I called my dad. 'Dad? Remember when I just to pretend I was Rocky? (Laughs) Remember when I was a kid? Rocky actually punched me!' It's off my bucket list! I actually got to do this with him, you know? So that was really exciting for me."
"That's what's kinda cool about it... I know that Sly's in greater shape than I am. We're 30 years different, maybe 33 years in age, and probably a good nine inches in height and it looks great. I saw cuts of it. Obviously I'm the one that's gonna be waving the axe a lot more and taking the attacks, but there are some great spots where he wanted to do this homage to Rocky. He's like, 'Hey, got this idea, you know. I'll lock you up and I'll throw a couple in the ribs.' I was like, 'Oh, that's be great! Man, it'll be awesome.' And he's telling stories about him and Dolph (Lundgren) and there are production stills of him just sinking it into his ribs and I'm like, 'Well, I can put a pad in here.' He's like, 'No, no. I'll pull the punch. I'll pull.' I'm like, 'Alright. OK.' I've got this f$%&er on tape, too. He comes in and he lights me up three times. It's like BOOM, two, three. And it's just that pace. One. Two. Three. And the third one, I was like, 'Awww. I felt it.' I'm like, 'That ain't s*%t. That ain't s*%t. 65, man, that ain't s*%t.' He rocks me and then he switches to his right hand. And then he he nails me in the right. It was great. He's having fun. I'm having fun. The other day was like, 'I'm fighting with Rocky. It's the coolest thing in the world.'
When all is said and done, after all the punches are thrown and all the bullets have been fired, Walter Hill wants fans to see this as an action drama that focuses more on character than spectacle.
"This is not a big spectacle movie. I think action movies, on the whole, have moved more and more into large spectacle. I'm leaving out superhero movies, that, seem to me, to be more fantastic, science-fiction, than they are action movies. Action movies, to me, are dramas with recognizable human beings who are in extraordinary situations. Now, there's a lot of elasticity within that definition. They certainly aren't very realistic, and they never were. This movie is not a big spectacle movie, and, although these films don't get reviewed this way or approached this way, it's largely a movie that is presented through the characters. The drama is character-driven. We're also trying to hit that tricky tone where you're trying to get some humor into a movie that is also a tough tale of murder and revenge. You have to ice skate rather carefully, between the humor and the action and the tension. It's trying to find the tone. In that sense, I don't know if it qualifies as a 'retro' movie, but it harkens back."
That wraps up my day from the set of Bullet to the Head, arriving in theaters February 1. This should give you plenty of bang for your box office buck, while throwing in plenty of drama and humor to boot.