‘Bullet in the Head’ was almost a very different film. John Woo originally conceived it as a prequel to his immensely successful ‘A Better Tomorrow’ and ‘A Better Tomorrow Part 2’. Two things changed the shape, scope and sheer ambition of the film. The ‘Better Tomorrow’ films were produced by Tsui Hark, with whom Woo found it increasingly difficult to work. Parting ways, Hark rushed ‘A Better Tomorrow Part 3’ into production while Woo was left to reconfigure his concept of the prequel. In reapproaching it as a stand-alone film, he was inspired – if that’s the right word; “angered” would probably be more apposite – by the violence demonstrated towards the protestors in Tiananmen Square. Accordingly, ‘Bullet in the Head’ gained a political subtext, Woo setting the first act in Hong Kong in 1967, the riots and heavy-handed military response a grim reflection of then contemporary events.
I first saw ‘Bullet in the Head’ on the big screen at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema in the mid 90s after the mainstream success of ‘Hard Boiled’ had given Woo’s back catalogue a new lease of life in terms of their overseas distribution. I saw it in a subtitled but still highly Anglicized version where the main characters were called Ben, Paul and Frank; I then bought it on VHS in the MIA release with those selfsame subtitles and watched it to death over the next half decade. Revisiting it last night on DVD, with the character names in their correct appellation – respectively, Ah Bee, Little Wing and Fai – I found it a bit disconcerting that Ben, Paul and Frank weren’t Ben, Paul and Frank any more. So please indulge me, for the purposes of this review, in sticking with the horribly unrealistic western names, otherwise I’d be checking IMDb every other sentence and I’d never get this thing written.
So: it’s Hong Kong, 1967 and Ben (Tony Leung), Paul (Waise Lee) and Frank (Jacky Cheung) are best buds who enjoy chasing girls, riding their bicycles, kicking the everloving shit out of rival gangs and avoiding being billyclubbed into concussion during the riots. Their characters are established quickly: Ben is nominally the more responsible, Paul competitive and somewhat self-centred, and Frank relies on clowning around to disguise effect his bullying family has on him.
Ben gets married to his childhood sweetheart, but things go south on the big day. Frank borrows money to pay for the reception from a loan shark, confident that his father’s capacity on the card table will cover the debt. A rival gang ambush him on his way to the reception and Frank sustains a severe beating, including a bottle broken over his head, rather than hand the cash over. Although Frank initially lies about the injury, Ben is incensed when he discovers the truth. Ben and Frank stage a revenge attack on the gang leader, inadvertently killing him.
Paul, his thoughts turning to the possibility of earning big money by smuggling, joins Ben and Frank when they flee aboard. Laden with contraband and the name of a contact, they head for Saigon. Turmoil reigns here, too. Their contact, Yeung (Chung Lin), is an underworld lynchpin who is holding torch singer Sally Yen (Yolinda Yam) against her will at his nightclub, strung out on H and forced to prostitute herself. Ben takes against this quite vehemently and, together with the enigmatic Luke (Simon Yam) – a hitman with CIA connections – they dispose of Yeung and abscond with a consignment of gold. Unfortunately, where they abscond to is ever deeper into the war zone and their form of private enterprise doesn’t go over too well with the VC.
For what was obviously a very personal film for Woo, he channels several Hollywood classics. The shadow of ‘Apocalypse Now’ hangs omnipresent; a teeth-grindingly horrible set-piece featuring incarceration in bamboo cages and psychological torture at the hands of the VC is an ode to ‘The Deer Hunter’; and Paul’s interrelated obsession with the gold and increasing inability to function with any degree of honour or humanity recalls Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C Dobbs in ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’.
Ben’s erstwhile calm leadership falters as events become increasingly violent. Paul’s descent into greed and, finally, betrayal begins the moment he gets a gun in his hand. Frank, emotionally the most fragile from the get-go, crumbles under what he endures in the prison camp. What happens during the friends’ escape attempt – during a US counterattack – sets the scene for the final act, which sees Woo back in frenetic, hyper-stylized, epic bloodshed mode a la ‘A Better Tomorrow’ or ‘The Killer’. Matters of honour are settled by protracted car chases and gun battles. Balletic action ignites the screen. Shit blows up with such visual poetry that Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay probably cry themselves to sleep at night knowing it’ll never look as good in one of their movies.
The difference, though – and this is what makes ‘Bullet in the Head’ such a standout in Woo’s Hong Kong filmography (we’ll gracefully avert our eyes as we step past the Hollywood outings) – is that the usual crime/action/shoot ’em up elements play out against the backdrop of a war movie instead of being an aesthetic be-all-and-end-all. Moreover, the war movie aspect makes for a grittier approach to the big action scenes. Where the narrative is Vietnam-based, there are no fluttering doves, guttering candles or gorgeous swathes of bullet-addled slo-mo. In fact, apart from a few judicious uses of freeze-frame, most notably in the first third while Woo is setting up the characters, his distinctive tendency to editing-room showmanship remains unindulged.
Consequently, ‘Bullet in the Head’ lacks the choreographed polish of his work with Chow Yuen-Fat. Although still assembled with more energy and insight into the dynamics of big screen action than most studio tentpole releases, it emerges as a more rough and ready beast by comparison. And this, more than any of its other achievements, does the film its biggest favour.