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Review Bullet in the Head a.k.a. Dip huet gai tau (1990): John Woo's equivalent of Apocalypse Now!

genre: drama, bullet ballet, action, crime

The first time I had watched Bullet in the Head it had a big impact on me. Recently I watched it again and there were still some scenes that got to me. However I also was able to see the flaws and problems that plague this film.

You might wonder, what flaws and problems? Well, for starters the story. Three friends flee to Vietnam to escape the law and make it big after two of them accidentally killed someone. Once arrived in Vietnam things are more screwed up than in Hong Kong. Duh! Wasn't there a war going on at the time? Why on Earth would you go to a country where a heavy war is raging? Sure one of the characters makes the argument that someone could hugely profit from the chaos. He doesn't truly explain how but I guess he means that there would be little to no consequences to criminal activities since the law would be pretty occupied with more important matters. The three friends (played by Tony Leung, Jackie Cheung and Waise Lee) are exposed to some monstrosities and endure some hardships themselves. However they themselves also have no trouble killing people. It's therefore ironic that later in the film suddenly one of the characters, Frankie (Jackie Cheung), grows a conscience. He then has big problems shooting someone in cold blood while just a few scenes before he was even seen smiling. Granted the difference was that these were thugs and the ones he had to shoot were American POW's. Don't get me wrong, this is a very emotional and dramatic moment. However it's incredibly hypocritical. 

This brings me to the biggest elephant in the room. Originally Bullet in the Head was intended as a prequel to A Better Tomorrow. And that makes sense since there does seem to be a scene that recreates an event being told by Mark "Gor" Lee in A Better Tomorrow. It provides the context that elevates the Bullet in the Head viewing experience. However if you are not familiar or even have seen any of the Better Tomorrow films you miss out a lot. It doesn't help that in order to change the original story has brought in his reaction to the 1989 incident in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He says he was deeply affected by this and he wanted other people to react as well instead of hiding. The Hong Kong people didn't like this element and to be honest neither did I. Not because of the political message but mostly because it didn't fit in with the story of the three friends who basically are criminals. 

Another problem is the action. Lot's of gun play and bloodshed. Only not nearly as kinetic and stylish as Woo's heroic bloodshed titles. Resulting in the action to be completely chaotic and brutal. Undoubtedly this was intentional since Woo wants to emphasize the terrors and consequences of anarchy and war. Luke played by Simon Yam probably is the only character that resembles old school John Woo where he is able to depict the grace, skill and charm of a lead from those early films. I don't know, if Woo had stuck to his trademarks and made the action scenes more stylish, Bullet in the Head would have improved significantly. You would have had the anti war message combined with kick ass action. Win win if you ask me. 

Originally the film had a duration of over three hours. Woo was forced to cut it several times. This could explain the fact that the narrative is all over the place and is not flowing well. The version I had (Hong Kong Legends DVD) the duration was 131 minutes and still felt a bit long. It dragged especially since some events were repeated several times without actually adding substance or good action.

So what do I think? Overall Bullet in the Head is a good film. It's obvious a personal film for John Woo and one can draw from the friendship displayed on the screen and witness how easy it is for that friendship to crumble when for example greed comes in play. It definitely is a very emotional and dramatic film that will have some impact in certain scenes. But for the fans who are craving the stylish bloodshed John Woo is famous for will be disappointed. And for the ones who are expecting something more intelligent and political won't find it. Because it never actually becomes clear what John Woo is trying to tell. He wants his audience to react. But in what way? And against what? There is not a single person this film that comes out on top. If the events won't depress you the outcome surely will.

Overall I have mixed feelings since as it seems I have blocked out the flaws and was remembering the film a little differently. Is this a masterpiece? Not by a long shot. I don't think it even classifies as a classic. Then again so is The Deer Hunter which was one of the films John Woo took inspiration from.

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