There’s so much action in this movie that it leaves you dazed, yet despite its excesses the drama remains utterly convincing.
Dir. John Woo
1990 | Hong Kong | Action/Crime/Drama | 136 mins | 1.85:1 | Cantonese
M18 (passed clean) for violence and some disturbing scenes
Cast: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Jacky Cheung, Lee Waise, Simon Yam
Plot: When three close friends escape from Hong Kong to war-time Saigon to start a criminal’s life, they all go through a harrowing experience which totally shatters their lives and their friendship forever.
Awards: Nom. for Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction (Golden Horse Awards)
Source: Fortune Star
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on DVD – first published 14 Jun 2014)
This is a John Woo movie, but even with that knowledge, I can’t help but make the point that there is so much action in this movie, it could have fueled two of his pictures. Often regarded as one of his very best, Bullet in the Head is unmistakably an auteur piece, though it doesn’t quite follow the narrative trajectory of his other more popular Hong Kong action flicks like A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992).
It is a more ambitious movie both in scope and scale, a large part of which is set in Saigon during the Vietnam War. In many ways, Bullet in the Head is reminiscent of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), not just the backdrop of the war, but also its narrative structure, and the intensity of its prisoners-of-war scenes.
As far as Woo’s movies are concerned, this is quite rightly his most uncompromising work to date, as the lead characters go through a dehumanizing experience in Vietnam. They are young adults from Hong Kong, played by the talented quartet of Tony Leung, Jacky Cheung, Lee Waise and Simon Yam.
“All I want is this box of gold. Is that so much to ask?”
With the exception of Yam’s character who only appears in Vietnam, they lead tumultuous lives with constant street riots that Woo not-so-secretly alludes to the infamous Tiananmen incident in 1989. One of them kills a rival gang chief only to have the authorities on their tail. They escape to Saigon at the height of the war to earn their fortunes through smuggling.
Bullet in the Head documents their experience and see themselves shattered by it. The storytelling is very strong for an action film, with enough convincing drama to bring its themes of friendship, loyalty and greed to the foreground. Despite its excesses, we are most concerned with the fate of these characters.
The mark of an action film with substance is when action shifts to drama, you remain compelled. Woo also understands that the most effective way to achieve dramatic resolution is through action, which he does here outstandingly. Bullet in the Head is also helped by a stunning performance by Cheung.
The seemingly free-wheeling opening titles sequence is a showcase of Woo’s mastery of setting up his characters, time and space, and also making us aware of the intercutting editing style that would by the film’s epilogue elevate this near-brilliant work to emotional and psychological heights.