One of the best movies I have ever seen. I think as a Hong Kong action movie it has never been eclipsed for it’s action and powerful themes of War and brotherhood throughout the movie. It was the first Hong Kong Movie I ever saw, a film that introduced me to the Directorial gunplay of John Woo and the magnificent acting talents of Tony Leung. It’s a film that at the time was shocking to watch. It’s a film that could never be made today without a heavy reliance on CGI and male popstars.
I first watched the movie in the early 90s during a late night showing in the early hours of the weekend on S4C (Channel 4 UK). It’s one of those movies you watch in the dark and by the time it’s ending light is starting to creep through your curtains. In contrast to American action movies, “Lethal Weapon” for example, the heroes don’t come out of the explosions and flying bullets unscathed. While the hero always wins in American action movies, the hero of Hong Kong films often don’t survive or are left deeply scarred by their experience, with John Woo’s Heroic Bloodshed movies of the 80s and 90s the characters go on a journey that will change them forever. As much as these movies are action they are more about the brotherhood and bond between characters, something America has seemed to miss in copying Woo’s movies by solely focusing on gunplay as the appeal of Woo as movies like “Shoot’em Up” (advertised as John Woo’s “wet dream”) have shown to completely miss the point of what a John Woo movie is. I guess this is largely why I became so attracted to Hong Kong Movies in the first place. After a diet of mainstream American action movies I was sideswiped by this, not for a moment expecting what that final outcome would be for the Protagonists. I love it when a movie can have that kind of impact on you, you aren’t expecting it yet you find yourself going on that journey with the characters and ending up somewhere that isn’t always comfortable but sticks with you long after the movie finishes. I believe this movie had a life course changing effect on me.
The story in a nutshell is about three best friends who grow up together in Hong Kong, their lives start to take a turning point during the riots of the 1960s. When they get themselves into trouble, they decide to head to Vietnam to avoid the authorities and make a small fortune selling goods on the black market. Instead it turns into a “out of the frying pan into the fire” situation as they are trust into the heart of the Vietnam War.
If this were simply just action then there is no concern as to what happens to these characters, the 3 main characters are friends who have grown up together, defend one another, they go to Vietnam in search of savoir but are thrown into a hell on earth, they survive gun battles together and overcome the odds for half the film, but when we see the friendship of this trio tear itself apart as they start pointing guns at one another, that’s when it really hits the fan. It’s almost heart wrenching to see them fall apart. Waise Lee has received criticism over his performance in the movie but part of the problem is the major shift in his character mid way through. He loses his mind with gold fever. For some his descent into madness happened too quick. At the time of viewing it didn’t bother me though. The gravity of the situation they found themselves in was a harsh one and the gold was his savoir out of the whole mess he had gotten himself into.
The film wasn’t well received in Cinemas, particularly because it was released soon after the protests in Tiananmen square in 1989 which it takes a lot of imagery from but places it in a 1960s Vietnam war setting. Woo was always inspired by “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” and this is definitely reflected in the movie along with classic Woo signature imagery of religious symbols since he himself grew up wanting to be a Christin Minister. He stills claims this movie to be his most personal work.
For years after seeing this movie I had tried to attain it on Video, but upon requesting it at Stores I received only blank or very strange stares upon mentioning the title “Bullet in the Head”, this was long before Hong Kong films were popular, there was no Matrix or Crouching Tiger hidden Dragon to capabilities on. It wasn’t until 2004 that I was finally able to see the movie again thanks to the release on DVD by UK DVD company Hong Kong Legends.
The longest available version of this film today is 135 mins. But there was actually 3 Hours of footage in total which I earn to see. It might not ever happen, the footage could have already been destroyed or stored poorly somewhere which seems likely after according to Woo’s comment “The original version was 2 hours and 50 minutes, but the studio makes you cut it to 2 hours. When I came to America I tried to buy the film and put all the scenes back. I checked at the lab and at the studio, and all the extra scenes are gone. In the Hong Kong labs, they never keep the extra scenes. They throw them away like garbage. They make so many movies, they have no room to store this footage.”
But maybe one day on Blue Ray we can get a 3 Hour Bullet in the head Redux. Yes, I can dream. The thing is that there probably IS more footage out there. I for one remember a Russian roulette in the film when I first saw it on Channel 4 (S4C). Then when I got the HKL DVD of the movie there was no such scene on it and more so I couldn’t find any reference to it. Of all the famous deleted scenes the most talked about is the ‘piss drinking scene’ which can be found online and other DVDs of the film but never this Russian roulette scene which, from what I remember was a really heavy scene. Bey Logan does give a brief mention to it on the DVD commentary for the movie but there is no deleted material of it on the DVD itself. I have confirmed with other people that watched the movie on Channel 4 years ago that the scene does exist. Better still one of the people I spoke to online has a video recording of it which he plans to make some screen caps of later. When he does I’ll update this blog again with pictures.
Favorite Quote: “Today I saw a soldier kill a man and I learnt something. In this world, we can do anything if we have guns!” – Little Wing