It may not be as revered as A Better Tomorrow or The Killer, but John Woo's 1990 film Bullet In the Head is one of the director's most ambitious films, working out the familiar gangster themes of loyalty, betrayal and revenge against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. Its 1967, and three lifelong friends looking to make a fast buck on the turbulent streets of Hong Kong escape to Saigon after the accidental killing of a small time hood. Initially, sent there to run contraband in and out of the country, the three friends make a hit on a gangster for an ammunition box full of gold, and are inadvertently thrust into the very heart of the Vietnam conflict...
Directed with style and verve by John Woo, Bullet In the Head may not feature the kind of balletic World War III carnage of Hardbolied, but rather the film's violence is harsh and ugly, the central section of the film where the three heroes are captured by the Viet Cong is often harrowing, the director putting a disturbing twist on the Russian roulette sequence from The Deer Hunter, one of the key influences on the film. Thankfully Woo for most of the film, keeps the mawkish sentimentality that spoils a lot of his work in check - no white doves were harmed in the making of this film I can assure you.
The screenplay co-written by John Woo has a pleasing symmetry and the director in an early section of the movie, very bravely smuggles in one extraordinary shot of a student standing before a tank, a sly reference to Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 - no small thing for a Chinese film maker. Performances throughout are strong, with the always dependable Tony Leung delivering another solid turn. Even in this early lead role, he was obviously destined to be a great star. Great support too from Simon Yam, playing an ultra-cool Saigon contract killer.
Bullet In the Head is not without its weaknesses - at two hours the film is perhaps overlong, the synth score is a little flimsy compared to the ferocity of the visuals, and Woo doesn't quite nail the Vietnam sequences, the flat looking Thailand locations looking more like Missing In Action, rather than moody jungle vistas of Apocalypse Now. Minor criticisms aside, this being a pre-Hollywood John Woo film, the action is nothing less than jaw-dropping, demonstrating that the Hong Kong film crews simply were the best in the world at making this kind of movie. Hardly anyone escapes from the film without being ripped apart by machine fire, beaten, stabbed, chopped, burned or blown to bits by grenades and bombs.
The best way to see Bullet In the Head is the R2 two-disc edition courtesy of Hong Kong Legends, which features a good, sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer and strong audio. The film can be watched in the original Cantonese, or with an English dub. A bounty of extras are contained on the second disc, the best of all, a superb commentary by Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan. The disc is officially out-of-print these days, but you can still score a copy from Amazon UK relatively cheap.