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LoveHKFilm.com's 1000th Review
Bullet in the Head
|     review    |     notes     |     awards     |     availability     |


Waise Lee, Jacky Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in Bullet in the Head.
Chinese: 喋血街頭  
Year: 1990  
Director: John Woo  
Producer: John Woo  
Writer: John Woo, Patrick Leung Pak-Kin, Janet Chin Siu-Chun
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Waise Lee Chi-Hung, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying, Yolinda Yan Chor-Sin, Lam Chung, Chang Gan-Wing, Leung Biu-Ching, Bau Hei-Jing, John Woo
The Skinny: Harrowing and unforgiving, John Woo's most punishing film is also quite possibly his best. However, those looking for heroic bloodshed won't find much heroism here.
 
Review
by Kozo:

Over the top doesn't even begin to describe John Woo's Bullet in the Head. His famed 1990 Vietnam war epic possesses the usual John Woo signifiers: male protagonists, trials of friendship, displays of honor, homoerotic male bonding, and two-gun action. It also possesses extreme histrionics, nearly comical emotional extremes, and characters who are so typified that they threaten to become cartoons. And it's depressing as all hell. But despite all that—or perhaps even because of it—Bullet in the Head succeeds. This is a film so emotionally draining and intensely powerful that it can't help but affect.

Ben (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) are three longtime buddies who cruise the streets of Hong Kong circa 1967 like rejects from West Side Story. Defiant and proud, they're also fiercely loyal to their families and each other, and will engage in street fisticuffs and other assorted lengths to prove it. When Ben decides to marry girlfriend Jane (Fennie Yuen), Frank and Paul secure a loan to pay for the wedding banquet, but Frank is attacked by the local gang. Bloodied, he still arrives at the banquet with the money, but Ben isn't satisfied with letting things go. He goes after the responsible parties, and accidentally leaves one dead—and this is ON his wedding night.

With the law after him, Ben is forced to flee, and hightails it to Saigon with his two buddies. The three are supposed to deliver some illegal goods to a Mr. Leong (Lam Ching), but things quickly go awry. The goods are lost in a terrorist bombing, and protesters and North Vietnamese sympathizers are shot without pity. Luckily, they have a contact: Eurasian mercenary Luke (Simon Yam in the Chow Yun-Fat role), who's so damn cool that he kills with flair, smokes cigars like a man, and still manages to romance the ladies. Luke helps the boys square things with Mr. Leong, but they're not satisfied with just completing their deal. Ben wants to free Sally (Yolinda Yan), a former HK singer who now "belongs" to Leong, and Paul wants a case of gold leaf that Mr. Leong possesses. Together, the four stage a daring raid on Mr. Leong's club that's vintage John Woo, complete with two-gun action, slow-motion explosions and lots and lots of blood. But things get worse. Quickly.

In John Woo's heroic bloodshed classics, hell is a swamp his characters are forced to wade through. His typical heroes have been honorable crooks beset by treachery and corruption from those they trusted. They find strength in friendship and brotherhood, and rise above their underdog positions simply because they're so fiercely loyal and honorable. The results may sometimes be tragic, but the characters remain true to their personal codes. All forms of authority—the law, the mob, and even society—are secondary to the personal bond between two individuals (usually men) and nothing is worth the cost of betraying that bond. It's cinematic homoeroticism at its best, and Woo has visited that theme again and again. To some, that's what makes him John Woo.

But Bullet in the Head doesn't allow its characters the opportunity to survive hell. Instead of honor and friendship redeeming the characters, they're ultimately twisted and destroyed by the stark realities of their worlds. Ben is the romantic dreamer who wants to save the girl, honor his friends, and do the right thing. Frank is the ultra-loyal pal who will do anything and everything to help and protect his buddies. And Paul is the friend who is initially honorable, but gives into his darker side when presented with the opportunity to get ahead. In other John Woo films, the two remaining buddies would band together to give the betrayer his, demonstrating that honor triumphs over whatever odds exist. Not in Bullet in the Head. Things don't get better for Ben and Frank. Their sojurn through Vietnam becomes a vacation of horror which could destroy everything they're about. To put it simply...IT ALL GOES TO HELL.

What John Woo was attempting with Bullet in the Head is anybody's guess, but the pieces are plainly there. With 1997 bearing down on Hong Kong, John Woo wrote and directed a film about the system of power corrupting even that which is most sacred (i.e., brotherhood). Political unrest is everywhere, authority punishes the innocent, and personal greed destroys even the most generous. Despite the characters wanting to live up to their personal codes, they find they can't. Things that are larger eventually do them in, and the sacrifices they make cannot be redeemed. We get lots of action, lots of homoerotic emoting, and lots of sappy wipes, dissolves and fades, but there is no justice in Bullet in the Head. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's this: everything really, really sucks. It would be better to stay in bed under the covers then venture out into the world.

With that sort of pessimism, it's no wonder the film was coldly received. It possesses some wonderfully raw emoting from Tony Leung and Jacky Cheung, and a generous dose of coolness from Simon Yam, but the excess that's displayed is beyond real. Overacting is practically required in John Woo's hyperrealistic world, and everyone follows suit. Tony Leung looks like he's going to implode in nearly every other scene, and Jacky Cheung's ultimate self-destruction is rendered in the most histrionic strokes possible. Both overacting jobs are in the service of a greater whole: a film which relates a parable by overdoing the familiar in ways which both attract and repel. Both Ben and Frank are characters so inherently worth caring about that even their bad deeds (killing is just not cool) are forgivable. Paul's descent into self-rationalization and greed makes him seem like cartoon character, but the sordid emotions which drive him are all too familiar. Even though the characters seem unreal (Most of John Woo's characters are.), and the film is patently unrealistic (Cool two gun action in wartorn Vietnam!), there is something very real at the film's core. The characters operate off the most basic human emotions, both good and bad, and that is what makes them so ultimately compelling.

Granted, this is not a film for everyone. The emotional excess and obvious directoral conceits have been sneered at by more than a few cinemaphiles, and the whole thing could be seen as a pretentious lesson bestowed upon Hong Kong by Mr. John Woo. Bullet in the Head wears everything on its sleeve and pulls no punches. It's doubtless that some individuals would start to squirm when trapped in theater for two-plus hours with this film unspooling in front of them (one critic once called it "vile, but felt"). Plus, the whole thing is so depressing that a bullet to the head might feel like a good way to go. This is one sad, sad movie and its emotional extremes can easily alienate. But everything about it is so overwrought and over-the-top that it all strangely works. In the end, this is a movie that doesn't just stick to your gut—it pretty much crawls in there and nestles in for a long, long gnaw on your insides. If movies are supposed to enrage, upset and affect then Bullet in the Head gets perfect marks. You may not go home with warm fuzzies, but you'll go home with something. And how many movies can really do that? (Kozo 1993/2003)

 
Notes:

The events in Bullet in the Head were originally intended to be John Woo's plot for A Better Tomorrow III, but afer the Tsui Hark/John Woo split, Woo used his story for Bullet, while Tsui wrote his own Saigon-set scenario for BTIII.
One Bullet in the Head scene in Mr. Leong's club is exactly the same as a story Chow Yun-Fat recalls in A Better Tomorrow, illustrating the link between the two films.
This review was based on the now out-of-print Megastar DVD of Bullet in the Head, which featured a previously unavailable on home video 126 minute cut of the film. Previously, the common version of the film was the Cinema City Laserdisc, which was truncated to run below two hours, and the similarly cut VHS copies.
There exist other cuts of Bullet in the Head, most notably a version which omits the climactic chase/showdown between Waise Lee and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's characters. That version ended in a boardroom, and was previously available on the Mei Ah VCD.
Some attribute the box office failure of the film to fallout from Tiananmen Square, which occurred prior to the film's release. One scene in the film drew direct inspiration from the unnamed Chinese student who faced down a tank during the 1989 incident.
Tom Cruise has been quoted as saying that Bullet in the Head is his favorite film by John Woo. It is not known if he means besides Mission: Impossible 2.

Awards:

10th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
Winner - Best Editing (John Woo)
Nomination - Best Director (John Woo)
Nomination - Best Actor (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau)
Nomination - Best Cinematography (Lam Kwok-Wah, Chan Pui-Ka, Wong Wing-Hang, Som Chai Kittikun)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Kam & Ronson Enterprises Co.,
Ltd.
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
 

image courtesy of Deltamac Co., Ltd.

   
   
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