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How can you not like a movie that starts out with a bloody street fight to
an instrumental version of The Monkees "I'm a believer"?
When you start watching this you'll probably laugh at some of the sentiment of the beginning, (the three main guys jump rope, ride bikes, and sing together for instance. Go ahead, try not to snicker, you won't succeed.) This is all a perfect setup for the following sucker punch of the most brutally and entertainingly violent and horrifying series of events ever put on film. People are shot in their head, people explode, demonstrators are shot, exploding Cuban cigars, etc. The thing is that this mix of melodrama, action, and violence comes together into a cohesive whole and works amazingly well.
By the end of the film will drain you physically and emotionally from what you have seen, which is probably why so many people would prefer the shorter ending of this movie. The ending fight is one of the best ever filmed, but by the time you get to it you'll be exhausted. Personally, I like the long ending.
Honestly, this is the best movie I have ever seen. It is the best mix of melodrama and violence ever put on film. It's over the top in almost every way imaginable. It's suprisingly moving. I love it.
BULLET IN THE HEAD (Die Xie Jie Tou)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Sound format: Mono
Fleeing from a murder rap during the political turmoil of 1960's Hong Kong, three devoted friends (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Jacky Cheung and Waise Lee) seek their fortunes in war-torn Vietnam and are ripped apart by greed and betrayal.
John Woo's ambitious movie - an operatic valentine to his youth in HK and his love of David Lean epics, and a response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 - went over-schedule and flopped at the local box-office when released in 1990, but has since been recognized as one of the finest productions in HK film history. Newcomers Leung, Cheung and Lee are terrific as the three friends whose lives are devastated by the violence they encounter in a foreign land, and they're matched throughout by Simon Yam as the Eurasian hit-man who rescues them from the worst of their experiences. For all its explosions and gun play, however, BULLET IN THE HEAD is a very human drama, played out against the vast backdrop of the Vietnam conflict, and invested with a palpable sense of love and compassion for its leading characters. Cinematography and editing are world-class, and Woo's dark-hearted script (co-written by Patrick Leung and Janet Chin) incorporates the themes of loyalty and brotherhood which have shaped and defined all of his films since A BETTER TOMORROW (1986). Cheung's final scene is absolutely heartbreaking; classic score by James Wong and Romeo Diaz.
Crouching Tiger set the standard that HK and Taiwan were able to produce films that were at the same, perhaps even higher caliber than american films. I have always felt that their films were better even before this. One film that convinced me that HK films could reach out further than american films was this film, John Woo's Bullet in the Head. To sum this film up, its basically John Woo's take on Vietnam, but it really hits you harder than any Nam film ive ever seen. Woo pours alot of thought and emotion into the script and characters, making it more than his shootout/gangster outings. the film never pretends to have a positive connotation, and the ending is absolutely one of the best endings in HK cinema. An absolute masterpiece, see it, or you may never understand how a good action/drama should be done.
In 1989, John Woo made a film that would simultaneously redefine and
reinvent the action genre forever. The film I speak of is, of course,
The Killer. Blending a touching storyline with exuberant gunfights, The
Killer worked through excess and it was an absolute delight to be
behold. It's hard to follow up on something like that, and for his next
A-class feature; Bullet in the Head, John Woo wasn't quite able to
recreate that what he did so incredibly well a year earlier. However,
what he has created is still an excellent thrill ride and one that fans
of The Killer wont want to miss! Woo is keen to keep that gang element
from The Killer, except this time he fuses it was action from the
Vietnam war, and as the story spans across many different locations, it
can aptly be considered an epic. We follow the stories of three young
men who leave Hong Kong after two of them kill another gang member.
They decide to become smugglers and take advantage of the Vietnam War,
but little did they know that they would end up in the thick of it.
The film takes obvious influence from the classic Vietnam war dramas such as 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Platoon', but through Woo's stylising, it takes on a life of it's own and stands apart from those films that influenced it. Woo is known for going over the top, and seeing three men in suits in the middle of the Vietnam war is over the top alright! However, also going over the top is the sentiment and I don't know if it's just the way that Chinese translates into English or what, but this film is definitely cheesy! The sentiment boded well in The Killer, but here it definitely doesn't and the film would be a lot better if the amount of sentiment was more realistic. The sentiment messes up the characters as well as the film too, as seeing one or more of them break into great long speeches undermines the fact that they're supposed to be criminals. However, all this doesn't matter once you get into the gun battles; which are incredible to say the least. If it wasn't for the sentiment, it would have been a complete whole; but it's still a damn good movie regardless.
This is the opposite of a kid's movie. Many R rated violent movies are fine for kids, but the story, the tragedy, the horror, and just the characters are too much for children. This is not a movie to watch if you are having a party. This is a fine, fine work by John Woo. The four main characters are excellent, and one is a killing machine. In the end you get more from this than even The Killer (which I feel is a better movie). While The Killer may tug at your heart, this will screw with your mind. This movie must be seen much more than the Matrix when it comes to being unable to explain what's going on. John Woo's opening seems very in character for him, but it might not be perfect for this film. Still, it serves its purpose and the end is truly incredible.
Wow, an amazing film. I've been a big John Woo fan for a few years, and
this is the last major film of his I've gotten around to seeing. The action
scenes are incredible, as to be expected. Not as much action as The Killer
or the record-holding Hard Boiled, but still a lot of exciting stuff. This
is also a really moving drama. Jackie Cheung in particular was amazing. Of
his three acting nominations that year, this was the leading actor
nomination he earned at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and I can't believe he
didn't win. The POW sequence was so sad, so tragic, so powerful, so moving.
Maybe The Deer Hunter was as moving to me. Maybe.
Anyway, this truly is John Woo's Apocalypse Now. An unforgettable drama, not just because it's a memorable, high quality, and entertaining film, but because of the emotional impact the events have on the characters and it'll have on you. 10/10
I saw this film once with my friends and it ruined our nerves. This film grabs and doesn´t let loose till its finished. It is the only film I ever saw that had violence really, not only so to say, non-stop. Even if the guys crossed a street or bought something to eat the bullet-showers didn´t stop. Watching this film is a nightmare because it just doesn´t stop till nearly everyone is dead. What it makes so attracting is the fact, that it works, this film is the climax of its genre, it is hard to imagine that any film can be more focused on violence than this film. Its also hard to tell entertainment from rejection and thats what John Woo can do better than anyone. His intensity in violence is close to Pasolinis 120 Days Of Sodom And Gomorrha and some films of David Lynch, but he does it in his own unique consequent ways, which certainly generated a new set a new style and standard in filming. This film though not so amusing as hard boiled got 10 instead of 9 because of its extraordinary strangeness. Watch this film and be sure to have a good beer with friends afterwards to come down again, otherwise your sleep will be affected.
John Woo directs an absolute merciless Vietnam war drama that is
comparable to The Deer Hunter in it's power and is quite possibly one
of the greatest movies of Woo's career. The movie follows three
trouble-making kids (Tony Leung, Waise Lee and Jackie Cheung) who are
exiled to Vietnam to escape the Hong Kong authorities after a rival
gang member is killed by them, once in Saigon the run into "The Viet
Cong" who are far worse than the HK authorities and their rival gang
and what the V.C do to our trio makes them regret in all their hearts
that they didn't go to prison in the much safer Hong Kong. A Bullet In
The Head would be a tale about friendship overcoming the hard times of
war, if the friendships in the movie actually prevailed. Instead the
movie gives us a heart wrenching look at war and what it does to the
three friends in the movie. The kids in the movie are in the beginning
not very sympathetic and give off the impression that they deserve what
they get but once they go to Vietnam you realize just how much in over
their head they are and Woo filters the emotion from this situation and
effectively conveys a story that is hard to watch but very rewarding
nonetheless. After witnessing the debacle of Windtalkers I decided to
see if Woo could direct war, well it goes without saying this blows
that one out of the water. This is up there with Hard Boiled and The
Killer as Woo's best film.
* * * * out of 4-(Excellent. A Must See!)
If you've never seen a John Woo movie before, you're in for one hell of
a surprise about forty minutes into Bullet in the Head. Up until this
point, there has been violence in the film but it has mostly been
restricted to street level brawling, clashes between armed police and
war protesters in Saigon and punch ups in Hong Kong slums. Then at the
height of an argument in a Triad owned nightclub, things get turned up
to eleven as Waise Lee pulls a machine gun from out of a piano and
massacres an entire room full of gangsters in one breathtaking swoop.
After this, things barely let up as Woo mixes in harrowing prison camp
madness with over the top gun battles. If this implies that Bullet in
the Head has no heart however then nothing could be further from the
truth; not only is this an incredibly violent movie, it might also be
Woo's most emotional.
Stamped over everything is in the indelible trace of the Tiananmen square massacre, which might explain the film's poor showing in Hong Kong, where it played to the people who faced it first hand far too soon for them to embrace it. Over fifteen years later though, Bullet In The Head could do with a reappraisal so that it might stand on its own two feet, rather than simply being viewed as an Eastern alternative to The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now.
The Eastern setting though provides a fresh spin on the Vietnam war which had already been captured on camera by an America eager to exorcise the ghosts of the war. The story of three ghetto youths (Waise Lee, Jackie Cheung and future superstar Tony Leung) forced to flee Hong Kong, it captures them in their early days before sending them to Saigon, where the trio intend to take advantage of the war and make a fortune. Needless to say, things do not go entirely as planned and they have to flee once more with a box filled with gold they have captured from a local kingpin. Unfortunately for them, there is nowhere to run but into the Vietcong-infected jungle...
For the first time, the true scale of the war is made readily apparent. In the East, it is sometimes known as The Second Indochina War as the conflict didn't restrict itself to Vietnam itself, spilling over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos and affecting everyday citizens of countries who weren't even involved. Woo's vision of the 1960's Far East is one of unprecedented chaos triggered by the clash of Capitalist and Communist ideologies, where suicide bombs are detonated in traffic jams and citizens plucked from the street to have their heads blown off by overzealous military police. It's an uncompromising vision and no mistake.
All of this is told from the eyes of our heroic trio and the effects of the war leave an impression on all of them. Their friendship is tested to the limit and watching it dissolving, counter-cut with earlier moments when they were smiling, happy youngsters is nigh on heartbreaking. Corny yes, but still heartbreaking.
However, for those of you have seen a John Woo film before and want action on an unprecedented scale, well look no further. The aforementioned nightclub battle is just an impressive iceberg tip, as Woo hurtles the characters from one set piece to the next with a riotous enthusiasm. A riverside gun fight keeps things moving, followed by skirmishes in the jungle and a breath taking helicopter assault on a Vietcong camp, bullets flying in all directions as fireballs bloom upwards and bodies contort in slow motion death rattles. Provided you've got the unedited version, you'll also see a climactic car duel that is better than anything he has done since moving to the States.
Action junkies then will be well sated but what about the rest of us who want bold, creative film making that doesn't have to rely on helicopter explosions to make a point? Well, Bullet in the Head delivers four career defining performances from the leads, a cathartic and emotional script, a harrowing impression of a world with a collapsing social order and a stark political message on the worries of Hong Kong citizens regarding their fate in the 1997 handover. All that's missing is a love story...oh wait, there's one at the beginning. Admittedly, sometimes it is a bit too violent for its own good and Woo could have eased off the throttle to let it breathe a bit, but this is still a film worth catching and a career high point for the auteur.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
***definite spoilers - beware***
In the cinema version of Bullet in the Head screened in Australia, the film concludes in the boardroom with Jacky Cheung's bullet-punctured skull being unveiled to Waise Lee before his former friend shoots him stone dead in front of the other executives.
An alternative version seen on cable in Taiwan - the one discussed by other reviewers here and often criticised - sees the pair retire somehow (how???) from the boardroom and engage in a protracted and bizarre, almost gladiatorial combat somewhere by the docks of Victoria Harbour (presumably).
The first ending was easily superior and no less bleak; the second suffers terribly in comparison. But despite that, the second ending's ferocity indicates just what John Woo lost when he packed his things and moved to LA. For all of the clumsiness of the second ending, it still rammed home Woo's unrelenting fury at the thought of friendship betrayed. This "non sequitur" ending is redeemed by the honesty of that fury.
Hong Kong movies are (were?) so often like that - short on technical and narrative polish, but long on passion and drive. Compare Broken Arrow, Face/Off and MI2 (or almost all of the films made by other HK expats in recent years) - they're the exact opposite. None of these come close to Bullet in the Head. Woo may never top it.
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