The opening credit "A Walter Hill Film" has not graced movie screens in more than 10 years -- not since the 2002 prison boxing drama "Undisputed" flopped at the box office.
That movie's failure was the last in a series of commercial calamities that plagued the director of popular and cult hits such as "The Warriors," "The Long Rider" and "Streets of Fire." Over the ensuing decade, Hill continued to produce movies for other people, but seemed destined never to direct another one himself.
Then Sylvester Stallone called.
"Sly said he had been working with another director on this project who didn't work out and wanted to know if I'd be interested," says Hill, 71. "I read the script and said 'I'm in, as long as you perceive the movie to be an homage to action films of the '70s and '80s, and we make it in that spirit -- where the engine of the film is certainly not the story, which is preposterous, but the ethical stances of the two lead characters and their opposite world views."
In other words, Hill wanted to make a buddy-cop movie -- not a satire or homage, like Kevin Smith's "Cop Out" or Stallone's own "The Expendables," but the genuine article, like "48 Hrs." or "Red Heat," two of Hill's previous hits.
The result, "Bullet to the Head," which opens Friday, is based on Alexis Nolent's graphic novel and centers on the relationship between a jacket-and-tie wearing hit man (Stallone) and a by-the-book Washington police officer (Sung Kang) who team up to bring down a New Orleans crime syndicate.
Stallone is a ruthless, methodical killer (his only rule: no women or children). Kang is a straight-arrow guy with a strict moral code. The two are forced to work together to battle a common foe, creating a gray zone where each man is forced to bend his standards a bit. They're not bad guys, but their methods are a little questionable.
Hill says he has always been interested in films whose characters must "go beyond the traditional rules and constraints of society to solve the dilemmas they find themselves in." That's the prevailing theme of nearly all his movies. In 1981's "Southern Comfort," members of the National Guard must resort to murder to survive a training weekend in the Louisiana bayou. In 1987's "Extreme Prejudice," a Texas ranger resorts to illegal tactics to take down a drug dealer. In "The Driver," an obsessed detective seeks the help of a gang of bank robbers to catch a getaway driver-for-hire.
"Stallone's [hit man] is not a character to be imitated or admired," Hill says. "But he is a character who is brutally honest about the world he lives in. And the people he is assigned to kill are not exactly exemplars of society. But the critical scene in the movie that breaks ground is when he kills [a villain] who they could have arrested instead. The policeman says 'You can't do that.' And Stallone says 'At least I shot him quickly and put him out of his misery. Most of the people I know would do it slow to get even.' That's the point where the differing philosophies of the two men crash into each other. Who's right in that situation? You'd have to be Aristotle to figure it out. But Sly definitely does not represent the normal standards of bourgeois society. Is it fair for a movie to give that point of view an articulation?
"It's like when I did 'The Warriors,'" he says of the 1979 film that spawned gang fights and shootings inside theaters. "I wasn't trying to romanticize gangs. But people often see gangs as terrorist wolfpacks who are loose in the city and quite often do terrible things. But if you really examine the gang psychology, they're almost all defensive organizations who have come together because they perceive themselves to be in danger by the world around them. So they come together for their own personal safety and form a bond, a family."
Although its tone is not as comedic as, say, "48 Hrs.," "Bullet to the Head" still mines humor from the odd-couple pairing of its two heroes. Also true to Hill's intent of paying homage to the 1980s buddy-cop genre is the movie's clean style and clearly choreographed action: The editing is as smooth and pleasurable as it was in the musical numbers of "Streets of Fire," which bombed in the summer of 1984 but has since garnered a passionate fan base.
"The endings of this kind of movie are, in a sense, a given," Hill says. "The fun is getting there. I think of the good guys and bad guys almost doing a little dance. These movies are all musicals, in a way. And also westerns, of course, because the characters are forced to use violence when civility and traditional society don't work."
"Bullet to the Head," which cost a reported $55 million, isn't a guaranteed hit. "The Last Stand," which featured Arnold Schwarzenegger's first leading performance since leaving office, opened with an anemic $6 million weekend, and outside of the Expendables series, Stallone hasn't had a hit in years. The film also arrives in theaters nearly a year since its original release date, usually a sign of trouble.
But Hill isn't fretting about how the movie will fare or whether this was a temporary reprieve from Hollywood jail.
"There were several movies I tried to make over the last 10 years, but the financing evaporated," he says of his absence from the screen. "I think it's fair to say I'm not wildly in demand by the studios. The independent cinema that's beyond the studios is usually perceived to be a young person's game. I did a miniseries, shot a couple of TV pilots, tried to keep my hand in things. But most directors don't work much once they're past 60. Now I'm not so sure. There are exceptions, but very few. I never officially quit. But I worked very hard in the 1980s and '90s, we have two daughters and I wanted to be closer to my family. I'm just not pushing nearly as hard anymore."