Bullet in the Head

Reviewed by Jay Wassmer

Love it or hate it one thing is for certain, John Wooís violent Vietnam War tale is a film that canít easily be dismissed. Iíve read many reviews that have praised the film for its unflinching brutality and fearless political stance. While on the other hand I have also read reviews that have lambasted the picture for being a Deer Hunter rip-off, and although I can see where John Woo obviously borrowed certain elements from Ciminoís film (among many other films), I also view Bullet In The Head as a separate entity of its own with a completely different agenda.

Woo has often cited the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident/massacre and a general fear of the impending 1997 hand over of Hong Kong to Mainland China as the inspiration for what he considers his greatest film. The fact that he himself holds the picture in such high regard should be reason enough for his legion of fans to view it. In the entertainment driven HK film industry itís a rarity when a commercially successful director like Woo seeks to make a truly political statement, and even more rare that said statement actually becomes a finished product.

Tony Leung and Fennie Yuen
In an opening sequence that payís more than little debt to West Side Story we are introduced to three young men living on the wilder side of the Hong Kong mean streets of the late 1960ís (and despite the violent aspects of this sequence, itís shot in a very loving and nostalgic style. Perhaps a nod to Wooís own youth?). Ben (Tony Leung), Frank (Jacky Cheung), and Paul (Waise Lee) are the three friends and their violent gangland skirmishes are hardly preparation enough for the path they will soon embark upon.

Shortly after Benís marriage to Jane (played by Fennie Yuen), Frank and Ben find themselves involved in the accidental murder of rival gang leader named Ringo. In an attempt to avoid prosecution and inevitable imprisonment the two follow Paul to Vietnam in the hopes of making it rich in the black market.

Jacky Cheung and Waise Lee
But, as luck would have it, soon after their arrival the boys lose their stash of goods in a terrorist bombing. Thrown into a sort of on-the-spot suspect line-up, director Woo serves up our first taste of the unrelenting horror that we will return to again and again over the course the picture, as the young men are witness to the true brutality of war. Left without the merchandise or any means to return home, the boys find some much needed help in the form of Luke, a suave Eurasian CIA operative/hit-man played by Simon Yam. Luke agrees to help them and enlists them to aide him in a daring attack on Saigonís head gang-boss Mr. Leong (Lam Chung). Leongís nightclub: the Bolero also serves as his compound and the boys find a virtual arsenal of weapons stored there. The arsenal comes in handy for the all-out gun-battle that soon follows (one of the few rather Woo-like scenes in the entire piece).
During the attack the gang attempts to save a beautiful singer named Sally (played by Yolinda Yan) who has been held captive by Leong, they also find a fortune in gold. The gold proves to be more trouble than it was worth as Sally dies from a gunshot wound and the boys (minus Luke) find themselves captured by the Vietcong. A few torture scenes and more than a slight nod to the Deer Hunter (with perhaps a touch of Rambo to boot) later, Luke and the U.S. Army swoop in to save the day. As Paul, Ben, and Frank try to make a break for it, Paul is bogged down by the gold and Frank receives a gunshot wound. Trying to hide from their pursuers Paul does his best to shut the mortally wounded Frank up, but when that doesnít work he decides to try and shut him up for good with a bullet to the head (thus the title).
Simon Yam and Yolanda Yan
Now, let us cut ahead, Ben recovers from his own wounds (it would appear that only Paul escaped unscathed) in a monastery, while Paul returns to Hong Kong with the treasure, and Luke goes back to his French style villa outside Saigon. After recovering Ben pays a visit to Luke and discovers that Frank isnít dead, the bullet is still lodged in his head, heís insane, heís addicted to heroin, heís performing petty hit-jobs for cash, but heís not dead (in other words, heíd be better off dead).

Trust me this is hardly a summary of the whole story and I havenít even given you a hint of the final act. Suffice to say the storyline is hardly routine, and could be partially viewed as an experiment in the desensitizing of an audience.

Now, as dreary and nasty as this picture sounds, why would I recommend it? This is not the kind of film you watch to enjoy; itís more the kind of film you experience. John Wooís vision is a world gone horribly wrong, a world that is both terrifying and dangerous, and most of all the world he was afraid was about to become the new Hong Kong (post 1997). It is this unique vision and the daring nature of Wooís direction that makes this a work of art.

But, even a work of art can have its faults (which this one does). First, Waise Leeís character Paul, although ambitious and fearless from the very beginning is so suddenly turned heartless that one is left scratching their head a bit. Secondly, Jacky Cheungís performance as Frank has itís moments, but overall he delivers a number of turns that not only make me cringe due to his lack of thespian judgment, but actually border on downright goofiness.
Tony Leung (in the pivotal role of Ben) on the other hand is absolutely stunning and he delivers sterling craft even in the most ridiculous of situations. Which leads to another complaint albeit a small one, perhaps Woo was attempting to fit too much into too small a timeframe (I understand he was a bit rushed, so the blame may not all fall on his shoulders) and in the end the narrative does suffer a bit. But, like I said this isnít straight-ahead storytelling, this is emotional cinema. Itís also a million miles away from every other Woo film Iíve ever seen, no romanticized action and chivalry, just gut-wrenching violence of both the physical and psychological variety. Even Wooís earlier war film: Heroes Shed No Tears was nothing like this.
One incredible bright spot is Simon Yamís Luke, as an actor Simonís choices have often been hit or miss, this time the target was dead on and this is one moment when heís truly shined.

In the final tally, A Bullet in the Head is not for everyone, but the more daring viewer may very well experience something he wonít soon forget. I love this movie, but for reasons I will never fully be able to explain. It could be the shear audacity that Woo shows in his direction, or it could be the emotional roller-coaster that the film takes itís audience on, and it may very well be something else that I canít put my finger on. Whatever the case may be Bullet In The Head is the kind of film that doesnít allow the viewer to remain neutral, it forces you to deal with the issues itís presenting and that in itself is an accomplishment to be proud of.

My rating for this film:  8.5

DVD Information:

Distributed by Mega Star/Media Asia

The transfer is excellent for the most part - some of the scenes in the club look a bit soft and runny.


Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks

There is a trailer for this film and then the one for Media Asia.

The subtitles are Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, Bahasa (Malaysia), Spanish or none.

Star files on - Tony Leung, Jacky Cheung, Waise Lee and John Woo.

I understand this DVD has had a few scenes cut out - but never having seen a version that doesn't I am not sure what they are.

There are also two endings for this film out there - this one is the car chase.