As war rages in Vietnam in 1967, violence rocks the streets of Hong Kong, whether pro-Maoist riots or teenage gang brawls. Amidst a tumultuous city lifelong friends Ben (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Fai (Jacky Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) maintain an inseparable bond, driven to escape poverty and make something of their lives. On the night Ben weds his sweetheart Jane (Fennie Yuen), Fai sustains a grievous injury that spurs the friends into a revenge attack on a triad thug. Forced to flee Hong Kong, the boys sail to Saigon with an ill-conceived plan to score big as black marketeers. All too soon they are out of their depth amidst bullets and exploding bombs, civilian massacres and rampant corruption. Aided by the enigmatic Luke (Simon Yam), an assassin who carries out covert hits for the CIA, Ben and Fai take on a local crime kingpin holding Sally (Yolinda Yan), a once famous torch singer, in drug-addled captivity. However Paul has his eye on a cache of gold. As events spiral out of control Paul's greed drives him to an unconscionable act that results in capture, torture and tragedy and eventually pits brother against brother.
Though too grim for Hong Kong audiences in 1989, Bullet in the Head endures as the film many would cite as proof that the greatest action maestro of the era John Woo was also simply a great filmmaker. Woo himself rates this film his favourite. It is his most personal work and also his most overtly political, inspired by a youth lived in abject poverty and made in response to the Chinese government's brutal massacre of student-led protesters in Tiananmen Square. Throughout the film Woo not only recreates iconic images from the Vietnam conflict but transplants images from the events at Tiananmen into the past, underlining the cyclical nature of the conflict between freedom and oppression. He also trades his familiar balletic gunplay for more a more frenzied, visceral form of violence that while no less exhilarating at times remains foremost disturbing and thus befits the subject matter.
Originally Bullet in the Head was intended as a prequel to John Woo's seminal A Better Tomorrow (1986) but after a bust-up with producer Tsui Hark, Woo developed his own project leaving Hark to direct A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989) which shares some plot similarities. The film is also something of a dual homage, its epic scope styled after one of Woo's cinema idols: David Lean (the grandiose set-pieces are as impressive as any mega-budget Hollywood war movie) while the plot draws loosely from the Shaw Brothers period martial arts opus Blood Brothers (1973) directed by his mentor Chang Cheh. Woo once served as Chang's assistant director and the core themes of his oeuvre and this film in particular (friendship, betrayal, youthful idealism vs. harsh reality) strongly echo those of the godfather of kung fu cinema. Interestingly almost two decades later John Woo produced a remake of Bullet in the Head by director Alexi Tan transplanting the story to 1930s Shanghai and re-titled Blood Brothers (2007).
Set to a Cantopop pastiche of The Monkees' 'Now I'm a Believer' (key line: "Disappointment haunted all my dreams") the opening montage not only sets the scene masterfully but reflects the duality of John Woo. Warm nostalgia is contrasted with violent images of civil unrest, raucous street battles while quiet, introspective interludes establish each character's plight. In place of the familiar iconic Chow Yun-Fat, Woo presents three contrasted leads: earnest hero Ben (who has the broadest character arc), tragic rascal Fai and brooding, desperate Paul. Wisely, the film does not paint its heroes as all that innocent. After all, the trio set out to exploit the Vietnam conflict as black marketeers. Initially Paul remarks that "as long as we have guns the world is ours." However, critics that charge John Woo as a purveyor of mindless gun violence would do well to note the whole of this film exists to challenge that very statement as well as Mao Tse Tung's doctrine that true political power comes from the barrel of a gun. Mired in sleaze, violence and corruption, the war-torn city of Saigon is presented as a world where right and wrong are turned upside down. In a key scene soldiers ambush Paul and Fai as they attempt to rob a store at gunpoint only to shoot the proprietors then steal what is left.
Tarnished angel Sally is the film's most overtly symbolic character. A once famous singer reduced to prostitution and drug addiction, she is the soul of glamorous old Shanghai brought low by greed and remorseless exploitation. Ben and Fai respond to her on an almost instinctive level that spurs their doomed rescue attempt that is almost an attempt to redeem Asia itself. These two represent the honest, salt-of-the-earth spirit of old Hong Kong. Moved by the plight of the Vietnamese refugees, they hand them what money they can. By contrast Paul embodies Hong Kong's self-serving capitalist future: obsessed with money, blind to everything else. If Waise Lee is not quite up to the task of his rigorous role and too often slips into comic book villainy, Cantopop star Jacky Cheung excels in what is by far the most challenging part he was ever asked to play, particularly in the later scenes. At the forefront however is a powerhouse performance that established Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as a great talent and paved the way for a run of acclaimed films. Heavily influenced by The Deer Hunter (1978), another story of childhood friends that return from the Vietnam war with psychological and physical scars, the ensuing events result in some of Woo's most powerful, horrific though at the same time poignant and affecting drama. Some take issue with the climactic car chase for supposedly betraying the inherently anti-violence message for the sake of an incendiary finale in keeping with Woo's reputation. Yet one would argue the film crystallizes its theme of youth twisted into embittered rage with a cathartic primal scream.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.