Those of you familiar with the Hong Kong output of action maestro John Woo – before he moved to the States and gave us Broken Arrow, Face/Off and (ahem) Paycheck – are surely well versed in the brutal, balletic bloodshed of such classics as The Killer, A Better Tomorrow 2 and the delirious action typhoon known as Hard Boiled; but one film that always seems to be left out of that magnificent list is Bullet In The Head, Woo’s typically ballistic musings about the Vietnam war.
An exhilarating shotgun blast of stylised misery, Bullet In The Head takes Woo’s usual themes of friendship under impossible circumstances and redemption via blowing chunks out of people with the highest calibre gun you can find and shifts them all to the criminal melting pot that is Saigon during a period when the whole world seemed to be tearing itself apart.
It’s Hong Kong 1967 and three pals, Ah Bee, Fai and Little Wing share an idealised friendship despite living in poverty and indulging in reckless gang behaviour – Ah Bee – the romantic, heroic one – gets married to his sweetheart while Fai – the goofy prankster one with a tragic family life – gets a loan with a local money shark to help pay for it, but when a rival gang bust him up after unsuccessfully trying to swipe the cash from him, Ah Bee swears vengence and beats the offender to death despite it being his wedding night. Having to flee the police, Little Wing – the serious, money obsessed one – joins them as they plan to flee to Saigon with the plan to make their fortune as smugglers but they unfortunately lose their contraband almost immediately upon arriving in a Vietcong bomb attack. Forging a relationship with Vietnamese gangster Leong nevertheless, the trio meet Lok, a charismatic hitman in Leong’s employ and Sally, a once famous singer in Hong Kong who has found herself hooked on drugs thanks to the mob boss who uses her as a prostitute while holding her passport as collateral. Both Lok, Ah Bee and Fai all agree that Sally must be saved a plot a way to get her out of Vietnam, but what with this being a John Woo film, things go hideously wrong as a massive gunfight breaks out. However, while the flubbed rescue attempt spectacularly redecorates the interior of Leong’s club, Little Wing discovers a large lock box of gold which he becomes obsessed with to the detriment of everyone and everything around him. As the escape attempt steadily goes from bad to worse, the survivors eventually find themselves in the middle of the jungle at the mercy of a Vietcong concentration camp where their inhuman treatment threatens to fray not only their sanity but also their very friendship. After a terrible betrayal leaves the trio virtually unrecognisable from before, it all boils to a head for a vicious, bitter play for vengence back in Hong Kong.
Woo’s cordite reeking, Hong Kong epics have always played pretty rough with audience’s emotions as the characters in all of his films have to go through insanely transformative and highly traumatic experiences before the end credits roll. Take the gut wrenching ending to The Killer that pitilessly attacks your feels with a lead pipe made of pure cruelty; or the final shot of A Better Tomorrow 2 that has its heroes bleeding into a sofa after claiming vengence at all costs; yep, John Woo movies have always ballroom danced with tragedy in order to get that highly stylized emotion flying across the screen that justifies the ridiculous lengths the heroes and villains go to in order to kill each other, but with Bullet In The Head, Woo manages to take it to a whole other level.
The second the film starts with the three friends larking around on bikes, chatting about being friends forever, you just know that shit’s going to get impossibly sour, but even then you’re still taken aback at how sour it’s willing to get. Our leads, a trio of young men obsessed with western culture (Ah Bee wants his hair to look like Elvis Presley) and even their earlier gang rumbles are shown to be somewhat happy-go-lucky as The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” plays incessantly on the soundtrack (no seriously, it’s everywhere), but after tragedy after tragedy hits, the world gets more progressively awful as events tirelessly leeches their innocence from them. A bomb disposal officer has his arms blown off while Ah Bee and his wife of barely a week break up in the midst of a demonstration concerning the British Hong Government; Saigon proves to be an absurdly corrupt world as soldiers openly use their military weapons to commit brutal robberies and each of our main cast members are either running from a tragic past or about to run smack into one. At times, Woo’s most political film chooses to over egg the pudding too much as the sheer weight of cruel fate dumped on these people sometimes is simply too much to stomach. The POW camp sequence could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with any other scene of disturbing debasment from ‘Nam films such as The Deer Hunter and tragic ends are shuffled out liberally as death proves to be quite the card dealer – but what stops the film from being virtually unwatchable are two things, the first being the performances. Hong Kong legend Tony Leong worked with Woo again with Hard Boiled and the Red Cliff saga, but he’s utterly magnificent here, as is the rest of the cast who get taken to pretty extreme places by the film. However, the placement of Woo’s trademark violence, while woking perfectly in the realms of organized crime, feels slightly iffy in the shadow of the Vietnam war, with the film’s stylized gun play feeling too “actiony” for a war film and the politics feeling too “warlike” for a straight action caper and the intense scenes of our heroes being forced to execute prisoners of war feel too close to the bone when compared to the usual jumpy, shooty violence.
Some die-hard fans may decry the omission of flappy doves and the boundless honor among thieves that usually pop up in Woo’s work (by the film’s end, nobody has any honor left in them) and if I’m being brutally honest the level of action is huge but not quite on the level we’ve seen from the director before, but with all that being said, Bullet In The Head is quite unlike any other action/war movie ever made and that’s ultimately a good thing.
If nothing else, there’s few things in action cinema more gratifying than a good old John Woo lensed grudge match to the death and the climax that sees best friends turned bitter enemies jousting with smoking cars and blazing berettas is a fucking cracker.
Exciting and horrific; exhilarating and heartbreaking; for all its faults, Bullet In The Head still manages to impact like… well… a bullet in the head…