Bullet in the Head (1990) Review

"Bullet in the Head" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"Bullet in the Head" Japanese Theatrical Poster

Director: John Woo
Writer: Patrick Leung, John Woo
Producer: Terence Chang, John Woo
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Jacky Cheung, Waise Lee, Yolinda Yan, Simon Yam, Fennie Yuen, Lam Chung, Yee Tin Hung, Chang Gan Wing, Ernest Mauser
Running Time: 118/136 min.

By Joseph Kuby

The Second Best Film of All Time! (behind Citizen Kane)

Many words can describe Bullet in the Head: Excellent! Brilliant! Superb! Splendid! Wonderful! Marvelous! Magnificent! Fantastic! Spectacular! It really is that great! This film is a true masterpiece of cinema! It’s certainly a classic!

If anyone had only been acquainted with Woo through films like Hard Target and Broken Arrow, they’d probably say something like…

“To think that the director of those American action flicks could direct something on such a profound scale is really astonishing!”

Speaking of quotations, here is British director John Boorman’s (of Burt Reynold’s Deliverance fame) description of Bullet in the Head:

“Over two hours of remorseless mayhem: balletic deaths, ingenious killings, delightful detonations, rivers of blood, acrobatic fights…an explosion of vast energy.”

John Woo’s tour-de-force is truly ground-breaking on every level – story, acting, action, direction, editing, etc.

According to Stephen Teo, author of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, the film was made in the fall of 1989 (the same year when John Woo made The Killer with Chow Yun Fat) but released in 1990.

It’s amazing how John mixes genres – subtle martial arts street-fighting, war, gangster genre, humour, romance, drama and contemporary action (complete with shootouts, car chases and explosions).

As far as mixing genres is concerned, Woo is up there with Wong Jing, Johnnie To and Quentin Tarantino. The film is also inspired by countless sources of material but still manages to find its own identity and become a unique film.

The influences of Bullet in the Head are Hamlet, Of Mice & Men, filmmaker David Lean (who made epic films), Who’s That Knocking on my Door?, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Treasure of Sierra Madre, Taxi Driver, The Man Who Would Be King, Mean Streets, Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Platoon and Blood Brothers* (a.k.a. Dynasty of Blood – he worked on this film as an assistant director with martial arts movie director Chang Cheh).

The structure of the film is indeed very similar to The Deer Hunter:

Three friends get involved in a wedding and want to go to Vietnam in the hopes of making a difference. The main friends makes a promise to his best friend that he won’t leave him behind. Things don’t go as smoothly as they hoped, the friends see the true horrors of war, they get captured, tortured and get coerced into a “game” involving shooting before they make a daring escape.

Despite surviving, the friendship amongst the three is still kind of strong until they go their separate ways in the battlefield resulting in one of them getting shot in the head.

Another similarity is that the main protagonist goes to see another friend (who has suffered a permanent injury) who tells him where the missing friend is and when he sees the missing friend, it turns out that he’s become a mentally traumatized drug addict. He tries to get through to him but he dies right in front of his eyes before the main protagonist returns to his homeland with the remains of his friend to honour his death.

One peculiar similarity is how both films foreshadow the fate of the traumatized character. There’s a scene in The Deer Hunter where Christopher Walken is lying on the front of this vehicle and everyone’s positioned in a way which foreshadows his funeral. A similar scene can be found in Bullet in the Head. All three men have this bicycle race which results in Ah Fai almost falling into the harbour resulting in Ah Bee trying to save him whilst Ah Wing is too busy celebrating his victory of winning (sort of hinting the selfishness of his soon-to-be betrayal).

John Woo is certainly one of the best directors to ever have worked in the field of film-making. His directorial style transcends words and into the realm of images, it’s this craftsmanship which remains to be subtle!

The film is bleak but uplifting as it shows that with the right humane and morale anything is possible as long as you’re willing to be selfless and interdependent. I don’t wish to spoil the story as it ruins the experience for all of you concerned so thus I will tell a brief summary: Bullet in the Head is a tale about four men – one who struggles with his humanity, one who cheaply sells his humanity, one who loses his humanity and one who regains his humanity. Ingenious.

The most controversial topic of discussion concerning this movie is the car chase ending. A lot of people think that the boardroom ending was the original just because it’s the one they prefer whereas John Woo made the car chase ending first, which makes sense when you consider that the film was already over-budget by the time talk of a second ending came into commission, not to mention the violence was too much to stomach after already being subjected to a lot of carnage.

I think a lot of confusion which emerged from this whole mess was that on Western releases, the car chase was retained to satisfy overseas markets so as to recoup the lost profit (the film didn’t make enough money to cover its costs and was a big flop – savaged by the critics who dismissed it as a Deer Hunter rip-off, among other things).

I think the car chase ending is perfect for the film since it helps get across one of the main themes John is wanting to inform to the audience: the pointlessness of revenge. Woo seems to be making a point that revenge just leads to more trouble and a far more tragic chain of events in terms of cause and effect.

There are four instances of revenge which effects the fates of the characters: when the Hong Kong gang leader is killed, when the Vietnamese gang leader is killed, when Ah Bee decides to kill the Vietnamese captain than make sure that Ah Fai doesn’t get betrayed by Ah Wing and when Ah Bee decides to take revenge against Ah Wing.

Whilst The Killer could be described as Woo’s best film due to it not being as unfortunately trimmed as this film, Bullet has also been described by other critics as the best film of all time.

The film was originally over three hours long (let’s say three and a half {210 minutes} – coincidentally the original length of Mission: Impossible 2, also directed by John Woo) and in some spots it’s obvious to see where footage had been removed and it’s easy to imagine where the bulk of the footage lie when deciphering the film’s plot. Prior to watching the film, I can remember reading a review of the Hong Kong Legends DVD that said this version of the film (126 minutes long) is missing some of the music cues that can be found on the 136 minute version (the version of the film which was long rumoured to be the uncut version and which was shown in film festivals around the world).

The critic also complained that the music cues used instead are weak (it was either a case of some scenes being played with no music at all or certain scenes where weaker/cheaper music cues were used to replace the original ones). The original VCD release of the film contained some of the extra scenes and had a different score on the Mandarin track.

While I can see this weakness of the current soundtrack (the POW camp sequence for instance), it still doesn’t change the fact that this film (especially in its uncut form) is top quality (something which the critic acknowledged himself).

It comes as a bit of a disappointment that Hong Kong Legends couldn’t acquire the rights to Woo’s version (too much legal hassle, probably). Besides the three versions stated above, there have been heavily truncated versions with the following running times in minutes – 80, 96, 100 and 116. Reviews on the net reference a Russian Roulette scene with children, a still on the net shows Tony Leung’s character with dual guns on the battlefield and the original Hong Kong trailer (as displayed on the HKL DVD) shows three deleted scenes…

1) A protestor, during the Vietnam protestation sequence, is being clubbed to death on the head by members of the Vietnamese troops (complete with blood squirts).

2) The infamous scene where Ah Bee (Ben), Ah Fai (Frank) and Ah Wing (Paul) are forced to drink urine after Mr Leong suspects them of wanting to take Sally away from him.

3) There’s a segment in the Bolero action sequence where Ah Fai, armed with dual pistols, is shooting a long array of Vietnamese baddies who are standing in this corridor.

On the HKL DVD audio commentary by Bey Logan, he says there was more footage of Ringo being hit head on the head repeatedly during the scene where Ah Bee and Ah Fai take vengeance on Ringo and his cohorts.

Also, Bey referred to three more deleted scenes…

1) When we first see Ah Lok (Luke) take out that greedy Vietnamese businessman in the men’s room, there were more bullets being fired into the latter’s body.

2) When Ah Lok teaches the three young men how to deal with firearms (this also draws parallels to a similar scene featured in Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow III: Love & Death in Saigon).

3) A Russian roulette scene during the POW camp sequence involving children pulling the triggers on their captors (a few movie reviews have mentioned this, something Bey also confirmed) which is surprisingly similar to Sammo Hung’s Eastern Condors** (whose film also had a scene where someone’s forced to drink urine).

Ironically, Sammo Hung’s Vietnam epic was trimmed as badly as Woo’s Vietnam epic – both films went up to over three hours in length (The Deer Hunter was originally four hours in length).

A friend of mine (the owner of this site) had told me that he suspects the scene where all three friends are on a Hong Kong hilltop at night-time (after the Ringo fiasco) may have been longer. If you look carefully, one of them looks at the other person (presumably Ah Bee looking at Ah Fai) like as if he’s about to say something (this makes sense when given what Bee says in the boardroom when he tells Wing about the promise he made to Fai about not leaving him behind in Vietnam, akin to what Mike said to Nick in Deer Hunter).

This type of near-missed dialogue can be spotted when Bee and Fai rescue Sally from her room, look at Bee’s lips it’s clear he was about to say something.

I read a few reviews of the film (and several descriptions on eBay which look to have come from one of the HK DVDs) that Bee’s mother falls ill, goes to the hospital and Bee refuses to see her in her dying moments because he doesn’t look good (presumably due to his gang fighting – I suppose it was alluded to in the storyline that his mother made him a promise not to get involved in fights). It’s also stated that they not only have to pay for the wedding bills but for the funeral ones as well (which might explain why Fai went to the loan shark as friends and relatives could only pay for the funeral).

Also, I’ve seen stills of Bee holding a pistol in the external (i.e. not in Bolero) areas of Vietnam, I don’t quite recollect seeing this particular image in the film. These stills can be seen on eBay (one that is part of a Spanish lobby card collection and the other which forms the basis of one of the HK DVD covers).

The POW camp sequence seems to be cut as well if you look at the way the scenes quickly go by (though Woo’s careful transitions almost betray the sequence’s trimmings – strangely enough the film won an award for best editing at the Hong Kong film awards, probably given how much the film had been trimmed without being too incoherent). I can remember reading an article by one of the American POW camp extras who claimed that he had a larger part (one with dialogue) than what was seen in the current version (he’s the soldier who tries to escape but gets shot).

There’s a review of Bullet in the Head which contains a web page listing down the differences between various versions of the film (though it only references the 136 minute version shown in film festivals rather than the three hour+ version).

Speaking of which, John seems to love making epic movies and has this habit of making three hour+ long versions of his movies i.e. A Better Tomorrow 2 was originally three hours long (hence the inconsistency and incoherency apparent in the current version) and Mission: Impossible 2 was originally three & a half hours long.

Unless there’s someone here who’s seen the 136 minute version (or 180+ version) and can comment on what’s missing, then we might as well throw in reasonably sensible and logical conjecture on what could be missing.

Besides using conjecture as a way to find out what may have been deleted, if you want to locate longer versions of the film you might have more luck going on Asian DVD sites (not the ones based outside of Asia but within Asia itself like Yes Asia, Sensasian and CD Japan).

Just for some fun trivia…

1) Chow Yun Fat was originally going to be playing Simon Yam’s role as he was really impressed with the script but John Woo had told him that his character was not the essential character of the story (though a pivotal one nonetheless) and that it might not have complimented his leading man status as it was really a supporting role (or more precisely – fourth leading role).

2) Tom Cruise claimed that this is his favourite John Woo film.

Just a bit more trivia (this time concerning the behind the scenes making of the film)…

1) In order to get a much more stronger reaction out of Tony for the POW sequence (or more specifically the part where Ah Fai is forced to execute American prisoners), Woo wanted tears and went to great lengths to get them. First he got dressed up in an American soldier’s costume then he briefed one of his stunt guys to shoot him with an AK47 (loaded with blanks) when the camera started rolling. So that’s what happened – surely the last thing Leung was expecting.

Woo later on explained that even though the gun was shooting blanks, he was getting shot at close range and was in severe pain. His clothes were torn and he got burns on his body. He ended up rolling around in a puddle in front of Leung. He did this for *seven* takes (the first being unusable because, instead of tears, Leung registered total shock and astonishment). Since Leung and Woo are close friends, the idea of Woo being gunned down in front of him was enough to elicit the sought after tears.

2) The film’s production went way over time and money, costing Golden Princess (the film’s financial backer) lots of money. Whilst Jackie Chan’s Miracles was the most expensive film made in Hong Kong at the time, his was still considered a big hit in Hong Kong (although these costly affairs didn’t stop them from making Armour Of God 2: Operation Condor and Hard Boiled).

3) During a Q & A session for the American Cinematheque (April 2002) at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood, Woo hinted that the original ending was the car chase ending and not the boardroom ending. He said that the film was released in Hong Kong without the final car-chase scene. Woo put the car chase back in for the international release (including the Hong Kong DVD, minus the VCD).

4) In the Q & A session, Woo mentioned a couple of scenes in Bullet In The Head that were direct “quotes” from the films of Scorsese and Peckinpah.

I’ve just read a recent article where John talks about his favourite films (from other filmmakers) and he mentioned how for Bullet In The Head, the characters of Frank and Paul were based on his friends i.e. one friend became the leader of a triad gang while the other became a drug addict.

Simon Yam was satisfied working with John Woo on the film, but he was disappointed because he didn’t get any publicity for the film. In the long run, at least his performance has been appreciated, it’s maybe his best.

Regardless of the lack of publicity on his behalf, Yam did have some good things to say about working on Bullet in the Head and working with John Woo:

“Well, it was a pleasure of course. John Woo is a very good director, he doesn’t rush you, too much in Hong Kong people are rushed. Movies are made very quickly, that is the way of Hong Kong life. But John tells you to take your time. He wants the best shot, and he knows if you just do it for the sake of it, it won’t look good. So that is why I like him, he knows what he wants and doesn’t push you to get the shot done quickly. At the time of shooting that movie, I was also making four other movies, so it was nice to go on the set and know I could take it a little bit easy!”

Simply put, this film is not only one of the best films of all time. It’s the best film period. To find out more info on the film, go here and here.

* Coincidentally or not coincidentally, John Woo is producing a film called Blood Brothers. He has claimed the movie is not an adaptation of Bullet in the Head. Still, first time director Chen Yili admitted he was greatly inspired by Woo’s film.

** For those who’ve read my review of The Killer, you’re probably wondering if Sammo and John talked about movie ideas once. Heck, they should make a movie together sometime – it would be a treat.

Joseph Kuby’s Rating: 10/10

By Tequila

John Woo’s “Bullet In The Head” is, quite simply put, the best film I have ever seen. I was fortunate enough to find a subtitled, uncut version of this film and I was not disappointed. The acting is too intense for words, the way the story pans out is sublime and it is also very moving. It is very rare to find an action film that can make people cry openly. This is not for the weak of stomach, as you see arteries pierced and arms blown off, but for quality I am yet to see a better piece of film.

Tequila’s Rating: 10/10 (but if you can’t take much violence this is a rental, as you won’t want to watch it any more.)

By Alexander

Essentially a remake of Cimino’s harrowing “Deer Hunter,” “BITH” is nonetheless a fantastic and tragic film that remains one of Woo’s best. In addition to Woo’s trademark shootouts and intense action, “BITH” offers both a distinctly unique perspective of the Vietnam War and a level of characterization lacking in Woo’s other notable films including “The Killer,” “Hardboiled,” “ABT 1” and “2,” and all of his American releases. The performances are appropriately over-the-top at times which only further emphasizes each character’s anguish and anger. Yet another tale of honor and brotherhood, but a film that remains one of Hong Kong’s best.

Alexander’s Rating: 10/10

By James H.

Bootlegs are shifty things. On one hand they provide a rather inexpensive way to see movies that are hard to find. On the other hand, they are not very reliable. Quality varies, and the films themselves tend to vary (I’ve seen two “Police Story 2” bootlegs: 92 and 110 minutes). To my understanding there are several versions of “Bullet in the Head” available. I have seen the version that is the most widely available (115 minutes in length). That version, unfortunately, is missing two rather key scenes (they are: the scene where the good guys escape from the restaurant, and the scene right before the car chase).

Other than the fact that I had to do research on what happened in those two scenes, this is an excellent film. It is essentially “The Deer Hunter” seen through the eyes of John Woo. The plot concerns three friends who flee from Hong Kong to Vietnam (unfortunately) during the war. There, they see first hand the horrors of war, and their friendship is put to the test.

Definitely one of Woo’s top five films (it’s number three on my list), it perfectly mixes action and drama. It also stays on the side of believable until the preposterous, yet enthralling, car chase at the end.

There’s not much more that can be said. The cast gives a stellar performance, and the story and action is great. A damn near perfect film.

James H’s Rating: 9.5/10

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