Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Racebending.com was invited to attend a red carpet screening of the new Warner Bros film, Bullet to the Head. The screening was sponsored by Warner Bros, KoreAm Journal, and Audrey Magazine in Koreatown in Los Angeles for the Asian American publicity and blogger community. Bullet to the Head stars Sylvester Stallone as a New Orleans-based hitman who decides to aid a straight-laced young cop from Washington DC on an investigation. Yes, it is one of those odd-couple movies with mobsters. Unsurprisingly, bullets get lodged in people’s heads.
The one feature that makes Bullet to the Head stand out–compared to the countless other films that share its genre–is the film’s diverse cast. Korean American Sung Kang, best known for his role in The Fast and the Furious franchise, is prominently featured as Detective Taylor Kwon. Persian American Sarah Shahi (Fairly Legal) is the film’s most prominent actress, playing Stallone’s daughter. The shadow villain, who for whatever reason is depicted hobbling around on crutches, is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost) and his beefy, cold-blooded enforcer is played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones). Stallone plays an anti-hero character named Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo, a independent soul and soulful loner who drops product placement for Bulleit Whiskey. His fellow hitman is played by Puerto Rican American Jon Seda. Christian Slater makes a visit as the bad guy’s lawyer.
No 20 or 30-something young white male actors are featured, yet the film manages to amble right along without Hollywood’s bread and butter actor demographic. The film does everything you expect it to. Cue the obligatory hyper-masculine strutting and maximum voltage gun–plus melee weapon–violence. Begin the betting pool for when the female lead gets kidnapped as leverage against the male good guys. Will they simply succumb to the bad guy’s demands for a ransom? If anything, Bullet to the Head demonstrates that casting a diverse ensemble doesn’t destroy a film or make it impossible to tell the same old story. (Well, except this time, the villain’s malevolent plan is to gentrify abandoned buildings into condominiums.)
Stallone’s character racially “negs” on his newfound Asian partner, talking about “samurai” and calling him “Confucious” while Kang’s character twitches uncomfortably in the passenger seat. Even Christian Slater’s simpering baddie lawyer throws out a “Kato” glancing shot. At this Asian American promo screening, the racial jokes floated over winces and awkward silence. Was the expectation of the screenwriter that the audience would erupt into cackles at the word “fortune cookie”? It’s almost as if the film–in addition to being overly excited to show off nude boobies–is self-conscious about having an Asian American guy in the role of the heroic by-the-book cop.
It shouldn’t be self conscious, though. Through his performance in the film, Sung Kang demonstrates the ubiquity of this archetype. Originally, this role was to be played by white American actor Thomas Jane; Sung Kang was brought in only after executives decided to make the film more diverse. Aside from the forced quips painstakingly reminding the audience that “yep, this guy’s not white like Bobo, he’s Asian,” Taylor Kwon is one of those roles coveted by actors of color in Hollywood: He’s a police officer, he’s a smartphone addict, he’s got a thing for justice–he is not defined by his race (except for when the antihero named Bobo rags on him for being Asian.) It’s awesome to see Sung Kang move up to a higher profile role.
My hedging critique would note that casting an Asian American actor as the foil to Stallone’s beefy machismo does vaguely map to cultural renderings of Asian men as less masculine. The film–whether consciously or subconsciously–uses this to it’s advantage when encouraging the audience to cheer for Stallone’s unique brand of tough white-dude action hero. As a character, Taylor Kwan has the gender-neutral name, the long feathery sideburns, the aversion to brute torture and murder, and an ethnicity ripe for comment. He yelps while undergoing an anesthesia-free medical procedure while Bobo smirks. He ineffectively pleads with Bobo to stop killing people. He even sports a pastel-colored overshirt, which he climatically sheds near the end of his character’s story arc, leaving only his dirtied up white tanktop (The camera lingers on this long enough that I assume it’s symbolic.) He earns Bobo’s respect, and it’s clear the film intends for him to earn the audience’s respect, through becoming more like Bobo in his approach to taking out enemies.
While the story of Taylor Kwon becoming slightly more like bounty hunter Bobo and less like lawful good isn’t the most complex plotline ever, it is significant that this Asian American character is the only character in the film that gets a character arc. Taylor Kwon even gets the girl–although it’s another Romeo Must Die scenario where we don’t get to see him kiss her. It’s definitely progress to see films where the actors of color outnumber the actors who are white, even if Stallone is the one who gets the corny voiceovers. Without it’s unique diverse cast, Bullet to the Head would not stand out in any way. Bullet to the Head isn’t going to be a critical hit, and it’s not going to be the headshot that ends inequity in Hollywood casting. It does give audiences a glimpse of what’s possible.