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