John Woo's epic Bullet in the head is fucking awesome and makes me cry. A lot. It's like Beaches but for men, with guns instead of Bette Midler!
Bullet in the head is John Woo's most personal and ambitious film of his entire career. Woo himself says the early part of the film is semi-autobiographical, and was filmed in Shek Kip Mei where Woo lived. The troubles and violence of the area greatly influenced Woo's filmmaking and none more so than in this movie.
The original idea for Bullet in the head was conceived as a prequel to A Better tomorrow. After that film had been such a success a sequel was needed but they had killed off Chow Yun Fat's Mark Gor character. The idea was put on the back burner as Tsui Hark pushed Woo into making A Better tomorrow II with Chow Yun Fat as Mark's brother Ken. He then made The Killer, which made his name on the international stage but the idea for Bullet never went away. Unfortunately Woo and Hark fell out during this period, resulting in Hark rushing out a prequel to the Better tomorrow films himself, using the still under contract Chow Yun Fat.
The original script for Bullet shared a number of similarities with A Better tomorrow III. Undeterred by this Woo carried on with a substantially altered script in which he poured his feelings and anger about the terrible events in Tiananmen Square. These feelings led directly to the incredibly intense masterpiece Woo delivered.
|Incredible this scene was allowed to be in the film|
Ben (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) are friends in 1967 Hong Kong. On Ben's wedding night he and Frank accidentally kill Ringo a local gang member in revenge for an attack on Frank. Running from the gangsters and police and looking to make money, they flee to Saigon with suitcases full of contraband for a local gang boss Mr Leong (lam Ching).
|An early foreshadowing of the head trauma to come|
|Enjoying the brotherhood|
Ben, Frank and Paul are captured by the Vietcong who suspect them of being spies as the box of gold also has CIA secrets inside, they are tortured before Ben tricks the Vietcong and they escape with the help of Luke and the Americans. During the escape however Frank saves Paul's life but is shot doing so. With Frank in terrible pain and with the Vietnamese all around Paul tries to stop Frank giving away their position, when he can't he shoots Frank in the head to shut him up.
Unfortunately Frank doesn't die from the wound and is left as little more than a drug fuelled animal who kills for the money for his drugs. Ben meets up with Luke who tells him what happened and they go to see what is left of Frank. Ben can't handle seeing Frank like this and shoots him to put him out of his misery. Returning to Hong Kong in 1974 as a refugee, Ben goes after Paul who has since become a powerful triad figure, fulfilling his dreams of being "somebody".
|An early indication of the division to come|
Set in the late sixties when demonstrators were on the streets of Hong Kong protesting about British rule, and then moving to Thailand, standing in for Vietnam during the war raging at that time. Apart from the screenplay's origins, Woo perhaps felt this setting would give him even more excuse to break out the hardware and explosions than his crime and gangster films did.
The beginning of the film, despite the poverty and violence feels romanticised like many of Woo's movies do, in fact it feels like a homage to West side story, though this soon gives way to the true darkness at the film's heart. Like a roller coaster gently climbing before taking the plunge into it's ups and downs, once Bullet in the head rolls over the edge there are no more ups, the ride into the abyss begins and gets faster and faster all the way to hell.
|A pivotal scene where bonds begins to break|
|The differing reactions highlight the split with Frank left in the middle|
|Could he be anymore suave?|
The cast of Bullet in the head is excellent with the stand out performance coming from Tony Leung Chiu Wai. In this film Tony perfected what I call "The Face", whenever anything emotional is happening Tony pulls out "The Face". It appears more times in Bullet in the head than any other movie he has made. Tony Leung's career is built around it, and why not it's a powerful tool, "The Face".
Simon Yam is great as the debonair Luke, a role that you could imagine being written for Chow Yun Fat . Yam does a fantastic job, both dramatically and in the action scenes, I doubt if Chow could have done better.
|"The Face" from the other side|
|Front on "The Face"|
|The Woo stand off with more "The Face" from Tony Leung|
|"Is that too much?"|
|The famous "Deer hunter" scene, this is much more powerful to me|
|The titular moment|
Of course John Woo is famous for his action scenes, and although plentiful in Bullet in the head they are a little different in flavour to the sequences in his other action extravaganzas, where the violence is shot in a more (cliche alert) "balletic style" and is more aesthetically pleasing. Here, while by no means realistic the scenes are much more grimy and more violent looking, keeping with the tone of the movie but still recognisably Woo through his trademark kineticism.
|Yes it's "The Face" again|
The two endings are almost completely different, "the boardroom ending" being almost serene in it's calmness after the carnage of the previous two hours, whereas the "car joust ending" just extends the over the top apocalyptic mayhem before ultimately arriving at almost the same point. John Charles wrote in Video Watchdog magazine "If ever a film needed to end with a whimper rather than a bang it's this one." It's a great quote and I can see exactly where he was coming from. Personally though I like both endings, the car ending fits in with the rest of the movie's tone and kind of mirrors the bicycle sequence from the beginning of the film with Ben and Paul on the outside and this time Frank's skull in between them. It has an almost gothic feel to it and although ridiculous, it's really well put together. The boardroom scene is in complete contrast with the previous tone of the film but perhaps carries more emotional weight due to how it mirrors the scene of shooting Frank. However Paul gives up far too readily and no one else in the room moves to help which is a little odd. Overall I would say the ending in the boardroom would just shade it as far as my preferred version but I can take either.
The only way to see Bullet in the head with "the boardroom ending" as standard is the Mei Ah vcd release, this is also the only way to see the film with the original music cues. It also features footage not included in any other version with the exception of the festival print. Even like this though the presentation is far from perfect as the vcd is (badly) edited for violence, missing other scenes and suffers from terrible image quality. Taking all this into account though the vcd is still a valid option for watching the film and is quite highly prized amongst the film's fans.
|It's well worth tracking this down if you don't have it|
The look of the blu ray is not helped by the wide range of shots used in the edit. Woo himself along with David Wu edited the movie and Woo is known for shooting scenes from multiple cameras and angles, which could partially explain why some shots look so much better than others. The movie used four different D.O.P's which would make a consistent look difficult to achieve. I would have to say any improvement gained with the blu ray is negated by the colour balance issue, and for that reason I still prefer the Hong Kong legends dvd. This is obviously unacceptable for a blu ray release.
|Not a good advert for the format!|
The English subtitles are a major flaw with this blu ray, supposedly they are corrected from the Joy Sales dvd. I checked a few passages and could see no difference and many of the errors are still there. The most unforgivable one being where Luke tells Ben that he "saw Frank shoot him in the head" when it should obviously be Paul. This has been an issue since at least the vcd release, if not before and it's unbelievably sloppy that it's still wrong now twenty years later and at such an important moment in the film. Again the HKL dvd is far superior in the subtitles department.
The only extras included are the deleted scenes and alternate ending carried over from the Joy Sales dvd. The deleted scenes can only be viewed as a stand alone reel with branching into the film not offered and it's the same with the alternate ending.
All in all the blu ray is a huge disappointment, if you have the Joy Sales dvd this is barely an improvement, if you want a better version then get the HKL instead. Maybe a better release will come from Europe, I won't hold my breath for it though!
|Still the best way to see Bullet in the head|