'Bullet to the Head' (R)

The difference between Bullet to the Head and practically every other action picture you’ve seen in the last few years can be summed up in two words: Walter Hill. The director, who hasn’t made a movie since the 2002 flop Undisputed, has lost none of his facility for effective (but never gratuitous or excessive) violence, for his understanding of the male-macho psyche and for his keen interest in what happens when men from different backgrounds and opposing world views are forced to work together in order to bring down a common foe.

These themes and elements were prevalent throughout Hill’s impressive work in the 1970s and ’80s (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs., Red Heat, Streets of Fire, The Long Riders, Extreme Prejudice). Now 71, the director remains intrigued by these ideas — in his obsessions, he’s somewhat reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, except not crazy or alcoholic — and he purposely uses traditional buddy-cop formulas to dig in deeper. A perfectly-cast Sylvester Stallone as James, a New Orleans hit man out to avenge the murder of his partner (Jon Seda) by a barbaric killer (Jason Momoa) who may have ties to organized crime.

In his investigation, James must team up Taylor (Sung Kan), a cop from Washington, D.C., whose former partner may have been killed by the same mobsters. Like he did in previous films, Hill uses the ethnic and cultural differences between his two protagonists (Taylor is Asian) for odd-couple humor and easy jokes but also as a way of depicting how people sometimes bend their own moral codes as a way of getting a job done.

Stallone, looking groomed and fit, radiates the aura of a man who is comfortable trampling over the boundaries of society in order to carry out his work (his only rule: no women or children). His confidence is the film’s rock-solid center; compared to him, Kan comes off as amateurish and out of his league. He isn’t a strong enough foil for Stallone, the way Eddie Murphy bounced off a dour Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs., and the movie suffers greatly from his uneven performance.

But there’s more to Bullet to the Head than banter and car chases, even though the film has plenty of both. Hill’s direction remains as clean and unfussy as ever — the action is brutal but extremely well-orchestrated — and he peppers the edges of the film with eccentric flourishes, such as Christian Slater’s amusingly over-the-top turn as a corrupt businessman. The movie is lean and tight — it runs 91 minutes — and if it doesn’t exactly break new ground, Bullet to the Head reminds you of the pleasures of a genre that today is exploited primarily for comedy or satire. When Stallone growls “Sometimes you have to abandon your principles and do the right thing,” Hill wants you to consider the statement and how differently it applies to each of his two protagonists. The world has become far more complex and less black-or-white than it was in the 1980s. Bullet in the Head is a throwback to the past with its eyes trained on the present, and it proves Hill has kept up with the times.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kan, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Christian Slater, Jon Seda.

Director: Walter Hill.

Screenwriter: Alessandro Camon. Based on the graphic novel by Alexis Nolent.

Producers: Alfred Gough, Alexandra Milchan, Miles Millar.

A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 91 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes. Opens Feb. 1 at area theaters.