Bullet in the Head

Dir: John Woo
“Bullet in the Head” is often hailed as one of John Woo’s best,
because it springs from his own memories of growing up rough on the streets. And after he sends his three heroes off to Saigon in 1967, determined to lay low from the police and make some money in the process, the film turns into his own version of “The Deer Hunter.”
The leads are Ben (Tony Leung), Frank (Jackie Cheung), and Paul (Waise Lee), and their character types are wistful/sensitive, well-meaning/unhinged, and realistic/selfish respectively.
All three, we see in an opening sequence that combines dancing with fighting (Woo’s tribute to West Side Story), are good at fighting. This comes in handy later when they go up against a crime boss and his minions with all sorts of firepower, from sub-machine guns to exploding cigars (!).
The three are poor, but Ben seems to be starting off well, getting married to a rather drippy girl in the neighborhood. But soon Frank’s problems with a local gangster cause all three to have to leave the country. Will they make a drop off of pharmaceuticals in Saigon while they lie low? Easy!
In the first of many well-executed set pieces, the three have just barely arrived in Saigon for five minutes when they wind up in the middle of an assassination attempt and have their important package blown up. Desperate, they decide to team up with a CIA op called Luke (Simon Yam) are wipe out the crime boss.
Another great set piece of ridiculous violence follows as the three take on the entire building.
So far we are safely in Woo territory. Then the three get captured by the Vietcong, who know nothing of gangland honor, and the movie gets very dangerous, refreshingly so.
At the center of the tale is a US army box full of gold. Paul insists on keeping it at all costs, destroying the friendship. There’s also a substitute for Ben’s drippy wife, a similarly drippy Canto-pop star turned captive druggie whore who Ben tries to rescue. Woo, who is never really that interested in women except when they are abstract plot elements, does away with her too.
I was with the film up until the final act, when Ben returns to Hong Kong to see vengeance on Paul for what happened to Frank. (What happens to Frank results in one of Jackie Cheung’s scenery-chewingest performances. He even got nominated for it.)
The ending, it turns out, was not the original, though that survives on the expanded, remastered DVD as an outtake. Like so many Hong Kong action films, any strides made by the drama are ditched for absurdity. The missus gave up on this film when the skull appeared.
Still, the transfer looks wonderful on this FortuneStar remaster, and is exciting for much of its length. But for those who want to build a case against Woo, there’s plenty fodder here too.

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