How sad it has been to follow the arc of John Woo's career, from legend of the Hong Kong film industry to Hollywood hack. Although his American movies are still competently put together and once in a while show off his directorial flair, they have little of the spark or ingenuity of his best work from Hong Kong, where he practically reinvented the action movie genre and established himself as a bona fide auteur. This John Woo Collection box set from Fortune Star contains two of his very best films, The Killer and Bullet in the Head, and reminds us of what an exciting talent he once was.
Any number of previous directors had used slow motion to add some tension to their action scenes, but Woo made an outright art form out of it, pulling entire dramatic arcs out of simple body movements and precisely choreographed mayhem. In a normal action movie, the shootouts and chases are used to punctuate points in the story and distract us from the business of the plot, but in a Woo movie the action scenes are the story. A sidelong glance between two combatants in the heat of battle can contain as much narrative information as a song and dance number in an MGM musical. These scenes don't just keep us occupied; they're modulated to propel the story in important ways. Characters seem to have an unlimited supply of ammunition when firing at one another, until they are forced to reload only at times of dramatic necessity. It's an audacious conceit that pushes a viewer's suspension of disbelief, but it works because Woo makes it work. You want to believe that a pistol can fire off hundreds of rounds uninterrupted, only to run out of ammo at that one crucial moment when the hero is most desperately cornered. Logic and plausibility are meaningless concepts in a universe driven by the kind of passion John Woo delivers.
The Killer from 1989 is Woo's masterpiece, an operatic tribute to the brotherhood of violent but honorable men. Woo's frequent leading man Chow Yun-Fat stars as Jeff, an assassin for hire with his own rigidly upheld code of ethics. He won't kill innocents and even puts his own life in danger to protect a child caught in the middle of a gun battle he instigated. When a beautiful young singer is blinded during the chaos of one of his hits, Jeff rescues her and later introduces himself into her life as a protector and savior. This puts him at odds with his employers, who consider such sentiment a liability to their cause. Jeff falls for the girl, but can't tell her the truth about his identity. When his bosses finally turn on him and send whole squads of goons to take out Jeff and anyone in his vicinity, he forms a reluctant partnership with the dogged cop (Danny Lee) who had also been pursuing him, but who recognizes in Jeff the similarities of their characters despite operating on opposite sides of the law.
The film is a virtual checklist of all Woo's favorite images and themes: the romanticizing of action and violence as metaphors for the personalities of his characters, heavy-handed religious iconography, white doves fluttering in slow motion, Chinese standoffs with multiple characters pointing guns at each others' heads, acrobatic stunts, and thousands upon thousands of bullets fired. The action scenes are amazingly well staged and choreographed, as beautiful as they are bloody. The shot of Chow standing in a speedboat with sniper rifle in his hands has become an iconic image of Hong Kong cinema, and the movie's deeply ironic ending provides plenty of pathos in addition to the excitement of all the bloodshed going on around it.
Bullet in the Head is Woo's 1990 war opus about three troubled kids from 1960's Hong Kong who, after killing a rival punk, flee to Vietnam hoping to find profit in the chaos there. In trying to make a quick buck, they get caught up in the political situation and are eventually captured by the Viet Cong, where they endure both physical and psychological tortures that dramatically alter the course of their lives. Unlike most of Woo's other action movies, Bullet in the Head features some extremely disturbing and graphic violence with few romantic aspects. The film is an acknowledgement of the craziness of war, and a harrowing journey through the psyches of its damaged characters. Woo stages many virtuoso action scenes, but deliberately without the poetry or balletic grace we've associated with his style.
Woo had abandoned the A Better Tomorrow franchise after its second installment due to a falling out with producer Tsui Hark. Bullet in the Head shares the setting and overriding themes of A Better Tomorrow III (released the previous year), as if specifically designed to be the movie that Tsui's disappointing sequel failed to be. The picture is not perfect; it has some jumpy story transitions and goes a little over the top in its last act, but it's a compelling war movie and shows some unexpected maturity from the director.
Almost inexplicably, both The Killer and Bullet in the Head were box office failures in Hong Kong and only found widespread popularity and acclaim after international distribution. In response, Woo's next picture was the frothy and light-hearted crime caper Once a Thief, which was enough of a box office success to ensure production of his Hong Kong swan song, the magnificently over the top Hard Boiled. Since 1993, Woo was worked exclusively in Hollywood, and nothing has been the same. Even if he never makes another great movie, his back catalog of Hong Kong action pictures will survive, and through DVDs like this John Woo Collection we can continue to cherish his once glorious legacy.
Fortune Star's box set contains both movies in their original Cantonese language. A longer version of The Killer has been distributed in Europe, but this DVD includes the original 111-minute Hong Kong theatrical cut that Woo prefers. Due to its graphic nature, Bullet in the Head has had many cuts for different territories, from as short as 80 minutes to as long as 136. The run time here is 131 minutes, which might be explained as a PAL-conversion discrepancy, but reportedly is missing a few shots found in other editions. The discs are encoded in the NTSC video format without region coding and will function in any American DVD player.
Both movies are presented in approximately 1.78:1 widescreen with anamorphic enhancement, and both have a minor amount of windowboxing on all four sides of the frame to counter television overscan. The black bars may not be visible on all sets.
The Killer was transferred from very clean source material. It is bright and sharp, with very little edge enhancement artifacts. The movie has a hazy photographic style, and colors are fairly dull, especially the reds that are not very deep at all. Contrasts also seem pumped a little. Some shots are grainier than others, and the transfer suffers from some noticeable compression and DNR artifacts, but it has a reasonable amount of detail and is overall very presentable. The movie was previously released on DVD in non-anamorphic widescreen editions from the Criterion Collection and Fox Lorber, but I was unable to directly compare with either of those versions.
Bullet in the Head has been obviously converted from a PAL video source master. Contrast levels in bright areas of the screen (such as the many explosions) very badly bloom and suffer from white crush. The image overall appears a little dupey and video-ish. In other respects, it is similar to The Killer, in that the source elements are clean and sharp with minimal edge enhancement, but compression artifacts do intrude. This movie looks mediocre at best.
Like many other of their catalog titles, Fortune Star has remastered the original mono soundtracks into both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround, although they do not seem to have replaced some of the canned sound effects as they have in other titles.
The DTS track on The Killer starts out great, with a very rich and enveloping musical presence in the scenes leading up to the first shootout. Unfortunately, then it falls apart. The action scenes are a huge letdown, with disappointingly hollow gunshots that have no crack or urgency. A shotgun blast in the first gun battle is almost laughably wimpy. Some artificial channel separation has been attempted, but neither 5.1 mix is very directional or has much in the way of surround activity beyond a few random effects here and there. Dialogue sync is also a little off. Fortune Star has also provided the original monaural mix in Dolby 2.0 mono. Fidelity on the mono track is slightly better in some respects, but the entire track is way out of sync with the on-screen action. Of the three options, the DTS mix has the best presentation of the musical score, and for that reason gives it a miniscule edge over the other choices, but none of them are all that impressive.
The 4% speedup inherent to the PAL-converted transfer for Bullet in the Head brings with it an increase in pitch that can be distracting. On the other hand, this movie has some deep bass, reasonably effective surround usage, and many nice gunshot sound effects (not all, but many). Again, the DTS mix has a slight edge over the other options, but this is still a barely adequate soundtrack.
Both movies also offer a Mandarin dub in Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are available in the choices of English, Traditional Chinese, or Simplified Chinese. The English translation is generally decent, but does contain some comical typos such as, "I need gun."
Both discs offer your choice of English or Chinese menus. Each movie includes the very boring original as well as some cheesy as hell newly-edited trailers. Also available on every disc are photo galleries that can be viewed either as still images or part of an automated slide show.
Continuing directly from the special features of the A Better Tomorrow Trilogy box set comes Parts 4 and 5 of the Code of Bullets featurette. Each part runs approximately 10 minutes in Cantonese audio with optional English subtitles. The program is a silly but entertaining attempt to explain the "science" of action movies. Part 4 describes the importance of "casting" a proper gun to be an accurate reflection of the movie character's personality. It also provides some useful tips on how to become a sniper assassin. Part 5 emphasizes how bigger guns offer more power, especially machine guns and rockets, and demonstrates the proper usage of smoke grenades.
No ROM supplements have been included.
Two of the best films of the director's legendary Hong Kong career are offered in this John Woo Collection box set, and the strength of the movies makes it a worthwhile purchase despite the only so-so picture, sound, and supplements. The NTSC all region discs are a fine bargain that is easy to recommend.
Armour of God Series
A Better Tomorrow Trilogy
A Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy
Infernal Affairs Trilogy
Once a Thief
Once Upon a Time in China I, II, III
Police Story Trilogy
Project A Series
Sammo Hung Action Collection