When it was released in his native Hong Kong in August 1990, John Woo’s brutal Vietnam-era epic Bullet In The Head was a box office disaster. Speaking to Uncut in April 2003, Woo remembered: “When we did the premiere, people just walked out…I felt totally exiled.”
Coming just over a year after the brutal massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, it’s perhaps no surprise that the movie?called Die xue jie tou in Woo’s native Cantonese, aka Bloodshed In The Streets?was too complicated, too downbeat, too pessimistic. And it is. But it also marks the point where Woo’s influences?Peckinpah, Scorsese and Melville?boiled away to reveal the style that would become the default setting for 1990s action cinema. And if those post-Woo flicks could be formulaic?cult movie references, Mexican standoffs, men in blood-soaked suits and flashy set-pieces?you can’t blame Bullet In The Head. This is not ironic, not a pose, not pastiche. Cheesy as hell in parts, it’s one from the heart.
The movie was originally intended as a prequel to 1986’s gun-opera A Better Tomorrow, but following the end of his partnership with producer Tsui Hark, who elected to direct what became A Better Tomorrow III himself, and angered by the events in Tiananmen Square, Woo gutted and rewrote his script.
Opening in 1967, with Hong Kong rocked by Maoist rioting, we’re introduced to Elvis-obsessive Ben (Tony Leung) and his Brylcreemed friends Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee), who effortlessly knife-fight local hoods in the sunshine in time to Monkees songs. Woo drew from his own experiences as a teenager growing up in Hong Kong, conveying a greater sense of time, place and personality in these early scenes than he’d managed in previous films. Woo grew up idolising Alain Delon and Clint Eastwood and dodging gangs with his friends?which brings credibility to the trio’s friendship and pathos to the inevitable Mean Streets moment when their horseplay turns bad.
The three friends are forced to leave the increasingly turbulent Hong Kong when they accidentally kill the leader of a rival gang (Leung’s new wife waves him off as a bomb disposal man gets his arms blown off in the background). They plan to make a fortune smuggling medicine in and out of Saigon, but inevitably things don’t go according to plan. In their first, horrific exposure to the brutalities of war, a terrorist destroys their cargo, and they witness a street execution modelled on Eddie Adams’ famous photo of General Loan shooting a Viet Cong spy in the head.
Entire scenes are appropriated from news photos like this, plus sequences from Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. At first sight, these seem like breathtaking acts of plagiarism, but remember that Woo and scriptwriter Patrick Leung had no other source material to draw on?Hong Kong hadn’t participated in armed conflict since 1945.
With no possessions left, Ben, Frank and Paul are forced to work for local crime boss Mr Leung. Through him they also meet Luke (Simon Yam), a CIA assassin, who we first see striding into a men’s room, performing a hit as “I’m A Believer” plays in the background. As a classic Woo contract killer, Yam brings lounge suits, knives, bombs disguised as cigars and machine-gun mayhem to the already demented proceedings. The three friends plan to steal a crate of Leung’s gold, but are captured by the Viet Cong and incarcerated in a POW camp where, in the film’s most harrowing scenes, their captors try and force them to execute US GIs.
They escape, but Paul betrays them for the gold, shoots the wounded Frank in the head and destroys an entire village to make his escape. It’s an astonishing sequence?intense and visceral?and after that, the third act seems like an anti-climax, as, a year on, Ben finds Frank, still alive, working as a hitman to support the heroin addiction he’s developed to numb the pain of the bullet lodged in his skull. Ben then returns to HK, and confronts Paul in an incongruous ending worthy of a Schwarzenegger movie. The original, included in this package, was considered too low-key and reshot.
Woo only made two more HK movies before making his Hollywood debut with 1993’s Hard Target. Bullet… is now seen as his masterpiece. It’s certainly his most personal, full of passion and anger for the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, and arguably the film that set the pace of action cinema for the next 10 years. A bullet in the industry, then.