Directed by: John Woo.
Written by: Janet Chun & Patrick Leung & John Woo.
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Ah Bee), Jacky Cheung (Fai), Waise Lee (Little Wing), Simon Yam (Luke), Fennie Yuen (Jane), Yolinda Yam (Sally Yen).
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no better action filmmaker in the world than John Woo. In films like A Better Tomorrow (1986), and it’s even better sequel A Better Tomorrow II (1987), and his two masterpieces The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), Woo elevated gunfight choreography to its very highest level. I suppose it was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling, and after a few disappointing efforts – Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1995) – Woo made his American masterwork Face/Off (1997), arguably the most entertaining pure action movie made in America in the 1990s. Since then, his career has most been disappointing – Mission Impossible II (2000) was entertaining sure, but it doesn’t come close to Woo’s best work. The less said about Windtalkers (2002) and Paycheck (2003), the better. I did quite like his last film – Red Cliff (2008), although I’ve only ever seen the truncated American release – which cut out roughly half of Woo’s epic return to his homeland.
All of this is a fancy way of saying that I am a John Woo fan, although not as big of one as I once was. I have always meant to check out his 1990 film Bullet in the Head. I remember trying desperately to track this film down back when I was high school and not being able to, so when I came across a copy recently, I couldn’t help myself. I just had to check out what some had referred to as Woo’s best film, and Woo himself had referred to as his “Apocalypse Now” – because he drove himself as crazy as Coppola did making the film.
But it wasn’t Apocalypse Now I thought of when watching Bullet in the Head, but another Vietnam film – Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). Like that film, Bullet in the Head is about three friends who go off to Vietnam during the American war there. Of course, these characters are not American, but from Hong Kong, and are not going to fight a war, but to make money. A friend of theirs tells them that wherever there is war, there is money to be made – and these three guys, who fancy themselves criminals - think they can be the ones to make it. But of course, everything gets shot to shit pretty damn quickly.
Woo is a genius at action sequences, and they are the highlight of Bullet in the Head as well. There are multiple chase sequences, and gun battles, and while nothing may quite reach the heights of the opening of Hard Boiled, there is a long sequence in a nightclub when things go bad that comes pretty damn close. And unlike the other Woo movies of the period, this is also a war movie – the three “friends”, who quickly fall apart, eventually find themselves captives of the Vietcong, and like the men in The Deer Hunter, are tormented for their captor’s amusement. In The Deer Hunter, they were forced to play Russian roulette. In Bullet in the Head, they are forced to execute American soldiers, as their captors look on and laugh. But, again like in The Deer Hunter, when you give your prisoners a gun, you give them a weapon they can use against you – and this sets up another epic gun fight.
With all due respect to those who think Bullet in the Head is Woo’s masterpiece, I don’t quite get it. The opening scenes of the film – in Hong Kong (and like The Deer Hunter include a wedding) aren’t very good at all, and in fact are almost embarrassingly simplistic – especially in terms of the dialogue. When the action starts up in the second and third acts, the movie certainly gets far more entertaining – the action sequences are the reason to see the movie, and they are brilliantly staged as we have come to expect from Woo.
But the story of the movie is just far too derivative. I think I’ve mentioned The Deer Hunter about six times now, and that’s because this movie really does seem to go past the point of mere homage, and gets almost into plagiarism territory. Worse, the film makes all the characters more simple and one note than they were in Cimino’s films. Tony Leung is very good as Ah Bee (the Robert DeNiro equivalent), as he maintains his moral compass, and tries desperately to keep the group together. But Waise Lee as Little Wing (the Christopher Walken equivalent) isn’t given all that much to do – and they make him too simple minded – really bordering on mildly retarded. This, I suppose, makes Jacky Cheung’s Fai into the John Savage character, although that really isn’t fair to Savage, who doesn’t become a villain as Fai does here, just a bitter, angry cripple. Fai’s continued attempts to keep the gold he stole become increasingly ridiculous as the narrative goes along. And his final scene with Leung, back in Hong Kong, is gruesome in a way that simply feels exploitive.
I understand the urge that must have went into making Bullet in the Head for Woo. He had just had a falling out with his producing partner, Tsui Hark, who apparently was more powerful than Woo in Hong Kong cinema at the time, and this led to Woo pretty much being blacklisted – he financed much of the movie himself. And Woo wanted to make something more “serious” than the simple gangster-action movie he had been doing. Not only is he addressing the Vietnam war, but he very explicitly references the then recent Tiananmen Square incident (even all these years later, it’s impossible not to think of what happened there when watching Woo pretty much recreate the famous incident, under the guise of something else).
The problem seems to be that Woo doesn’t really have anything to say about the issues he raises – either the Vietnam War or Tiananmen Square. At least nothing anything beyond the most basic. And he lifts so much directly from The Deer Hunter that it detracts from what is great about the film. John Woo is better than most at action movies – and A Bullet in the Head proves that in the action sequences. It also proves why he has so rarely decided to tackle serious subject matter. He’s just not very good at that.