Bullet in the Head is about three childhood friends 'brothers' living in the slums of Hong Kong with dreams of bigger and better things. There's Ben (Tony Leung), Paul (Waise Lee) and Frank (Jacky Cheung) who all seem to be enamored with the cool gangster image that was prominent in America at the time, they're constantly brawling with rival gangs in scenes that reminded me of West Side Story. They're rambunctious, they're inseparable and they'd do anything for the other, they consider themselves brothers. When Frank is viciously attacked by another gang on Ben's wedding night, Frank gets carried away and kills the gangster as the violence had been escalating for some time. Ben heard about opportunities to make easy money in chaotic countries on his wedding night, specifically Vietnam at this time, so with the cops looking for them they decide to become smugglers and head off to Vietnam expecting to exploit the war and make themselves a small fortune.
Little do they know the world of violence and horror that they're about to enter. It's one thing to get into a few scraps in your youth, but it's quite another to walk into a war zone. The 'brothers' are immediately exposed to levels of casual violence that makes them sick, they see a couple of suicide bombings by the Vietcong and a subsequent execution because of it, all in full view, but with nowhere left to go, they quickly realize that if they're to survive, let alone make any money, they need to arm themselves and be prepared use them. However as the pressures of war torn Vietnam begin to wear them down, their once rock solid camaraderie starts to crumble in harrowing and grisly ways.
John Woo (director) establishes the strong bond between these friends very convincingly and succinctly early on. What I found interesting is the romanticising of the 'rebel without a cause' mentality that they all shared at the beginning, they're not afraid of a brawl, they're not afraid of anything, but when they come to Vietnam and witness 'real' violence first hand, they're deeply rattled by it, disturbed by it and each friend deals with it and adapts to it in different ways. The point is though, violence is terrible and it's often profoundly dehumanizing. Suddenly the allure and the fixation that they had over emulating the suave gangster lifestyle is gone, it's no fun in reality, it's horrible and it's heartbreaking.
Known for his flamboyant action, John Woo maintains that degree of what's arguably excessive violence in Bullet in the Head, but there's a major tonal difference in the mood of the violence, it's ferocious, relentless and haunting. Bullet in the Head also draws a lot of parallels between The Deer Hunter and The Treasure or Sierra Madre as well, you could almost say that Bullet in the Head is what you'd get if you combined the two, it's that close. The raid on a Vietcong base towards the end is on a massive scope and some of the stunts were insane, there were no cgi people back then to take the fall. I was surprised how close people were to the explosions too, I bet there were a few burnt hairs in the process of making this movie.
Apparently John Woo had to finance this movie himself because of a falling out he had with Tsui Hark, so this was a real labor of love for him. On the downside, John Woo was forced to cut the hell out of the movie because it originally ran in at over three hours long, and so there's quite a few noticeable editing jumps throughout the movie. Bullet in the Head is still an action movie, but it's an action movie that doesn't glorify violence whatsoever, in fact, it's a pretty damning indictment of its effects and it has more substance than a lot of other action movies do. There were moments when I felt like John Woo's ambition was greater than that of his ability though, but they were few and far between. Given all the financing problems and forced cuts of the movie, I'd say it still turned out to be a pretty fucking great action movie, even though I watched one of the restored cuts, which still isn't the 'intended cut' as I believe the rest of the footage has been lost to time.
Written by - The Sentry - 29/12/2015