John Woo's peak was clearly his run from 1986's A Better Tomorrow to 1992's Hard-Boiled. While commercially Mission Impossible 2 is his biggest venture, what defined him as a director was that impressive HK run. And, among those films, 1991's A Bullet in the Head has the deepest backstory.
Hot on the heels of The Killer, John Woo had cemented his place in Hong Kong filmdom to do almost anything he wanted. While working under Tsui Hark's Film Workshop had afforded him the opportunity to really speak out cinematically with his ideas pertaining to action choreography and the concepts of male loyalty, honor, and brotherhood, Hark's insistence on further Better Tomorrow sequels/prequels and general dabbling in Woo's projects accounted for why he decided to take A Bullet in the Head away from Hark's Film Workshop and develop it more independently. The end result was a film mired with production woes and a cold box office reception, yet it also quickly gained a cult of respect amoung HK/Woo fans.
It is the story of Ben (Tony Leung- Chungking Express, Hard-Boiled), Frank (Jacky Cheung- High Risk, Once Upon a Time in China), and Paul (Waise Lee- Big Heat, Wing Chun) , a rambunctious, scrappy trio of friends in 1960's Hong Kong. Ben is the level-headed, nice guy, Frank is the loveable, loyal, lapdog, and Paul is the intense, ambitious one. On the eve of Ben's wedding, Frank is beat up and nearly robbed of the reception money by a rival gang of thugs. When Ben and Frank's revenge beatdown becomes fatal, they know they need to leave town until the heat dies down. Paul see's this as their chance to strike out and try to make some quick cash as gun smugglers in war torn Vietnam.
The guys are fresh off the plane when they receive the first sign of their hard road ahead. All their belongings and start up capital are blown up in a suicide bombing. They do manage to make some connections, one with underworld bigwig Mr. Leong, the other with opportunist, wheeler, dealer, CIA connected Luke (Simon Yam- Dr. Lam, Election). After Ben see's what Mr Leong has done to Sally, a girl from the old neighborhood, who was imported as a nightclub songstress but has now become pimped out and smack addicted, the three side with Luke in robbing Leong of a cache of gold and some stolen military maps. Their escape is not smooth and they find themsleves adrift in the middle of the jungle. Their friendship and loyalties are tested with Frank becoming psychologically unhinged, Paul greedily obsessed over the gold, and poor Ben trying desperately to hold them all together. They finally find their relationship totally shattered after they captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese.
A Bullet in the Head is a real hallmark in Woo's career, an engaging blend of his signature action, manly bonding, while flexing some harder hitting melodrama than he was known for in his more commercial fare. It is easy to surmise why the film was met with a lukewarm reaction because it is less of a wide audience pleaser. By adding some political commentary and riot footage that contains direct allusions to the Tiananmen Square massacre a mere year after the event, it is easy to see why Hong Kong/Chinese audiences met this unrelenting grinder with a less than enthusiastic reaction. It would be much the same if, in 2002, Hollywood made some kind of Passenger 57/Die Hard action vehicle with nods to 9/11. Too soon. Too soon.
While I harp on Bullet in the Head as an incredibly grim film, make no mistake, despite the dabs of political/historical commentary and the shades of The Deer Hunter, it is still an action film. While Woo delves into more serious territory, it is punctuated by over the top action histronics almost as much as character scenes. For instance, though they are just a bunch of low level street hoods, when our trio picks up guns they suddenly become bullet ballet marksmen. A Bullet in the Head is actually a better fit next to Uncommon Valor or Lets Get Harry rather than The Deer Hunter. Despite the politicalizing, Woo's ideological message is kept action flick simple: "WAR is Bad. FRIENDS are Good."
One of the things that drew me to HK films- Asian cinema, in general, but mainly HK films- is how they freely mix up tones and Bullet in the Head finds Woo straddling between melodrama and exploitative outrageousness. While these are the sort of holes in reality Woo could get away get away within his other films due to their sheer focus on spectacle, in a more stone-faced kind of exercise like Bullet in the Head it can be a little bracing. I enjoy it, but I can see how popcorn action fans and its orignal HK audience were turned off. Helping matters are the performers, and the three prefectly cast leads give it their all. One thing is certian, pair A Bullet in the Head next to Face Off, and its clear to see that his bleaker leaning, Pekinpah-ish muscles have been all but nuetered during Woo's Hollywood tenure.
There are some fits and stutters in the flow of the film and certain sequences have some rough editing. Woo has gone on record saying the film's first cut was three hours long (and even the ending action finale face-off was the result of a reshoot after Woo reconsidered his original, more simple, drama leaning ending) and it isn't hard to imagine some of the sloppier transitions and shallower character details and plotting points are a result of editing.
The DVD: Joy Sales.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. I've only previously seen the film via a decade(+) vhs bootleg that was God knows how many generations removed form the original source.
The remastered image is solid but not revelatory. Its still a pretty rough looking film, particularly in the Thai location footage, which is fitting because that is where you find some of the films grimmer moments. The print, for the most part, is tight and clean with decent sharpness and grain level and excellent contrast and color details. Technical issues, such as compression, appear to be minimal to negligible and most of the grumbles appear to be source related (see next paragraph).
Now, as far as the deleted and alternate footage, their sources were an entirely different animal- a sick one. They did the best they could considering much of the original material was lost or destroyed so only badly deteriorated or roughed up copies (often with burned in subs) was available. So bear that in mind when you choose the alternate viewing options you'll get around three different sources, two of them being pretty horrible.
Sound: Cantonese 2.0 (original track), DTS and 5.1 (remixes), and Mandarin 5.1. Optional English or Chinese subtitles.
I'm a traditionalist and I always opt for the original mono or stereo track over remasters. The original track is decent shape and thankfully the remixes (though I only listened to them for a minute or two at a time) sound pretty good with no severe or patently hokey reshaping.
The subs were fine, appeared well-translated with few errors, though, in a few instances the timing was bit too fast.
Extras: The big deal with this edition is that is contains all the known alternate footage with the options of "seemless" branching that ingrates it into the film. You get three different viewing options: watch the film in its widest, standard release cut, with the original "boardroom" ending, and the longest option, a "festival/original cut" with all the deleted bits and the original ending. It is a nice option; however, as is the case with so many "seemless" branching DVDs, there is a slight pause before the footage plays and this especially becomes problematic in the longest cut because some of the footage there is very brief (I'm talking barely a second or two) causing a really unwelcome stammering in the playback. Thankfully, the second disc provieds yet another viewing option for all of this footage.
A second disc of extras contains: Trailers & Photo Galleries. Original and new trailers, promo spots, still and slideshow gallery. --- Codes of Bullets (8:52). The only featurette on this edition covers the guns and armorments, so you basically get to know more about the Barretta than you do John Woo. --- Alternate Ending (5:10) and Deleted Scenes (4:57). This option allows you to watch the deleted material stand alone instead of integrated into the film. The main gems are the infamous "piss drinking" scenes and the alternate "boardroom" ending. --- Interview with actor Waise Lee (10:03). Basic, brief interview that covers mostly generalities relating to the film including the differnet cuts and a notorious on set accident.
Conclusion: Bullet in the Head is a supreme example of sobering, exploitative action and one of the better films in John Woo's resume. It is the most depressing action film you are likely to see. Joy Sales SE DVD is not definitive in that it lacks some key extras that would have been nice like featurettes, commentary, and more interviews with key players like Tony Leung and John Woo. But, you do get the long sought after deleted and alternate scenes as well as a nifty and much needed remastering, making this an essential purchase for fans.