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Bullet in the Head

Year: 1990
Production Co: Golden Princess Film Production Limited
Director: John Woo
Writer: Janet Chun/Patrick Leung/John Woo
Cast: Tony Leung, Jacky Cheung

What starts as a kinetic John Woo Hong Kong crime thriller ends up a sweeping statement on the politics of war and while it goes in some unexpected directions, is overlong and (like a lot of Asian cinema) tends to come across as way overcooked in the drama and performances, it somehow hangs together despite a slightly shambolic nature.

The disparity between what you expect and what it ends up as is most obvious in the title. I thought it referred only to the style of action the film was going to be about (also attributable to its pedigree), but there's an actual bullet lodged in the head of one of the characters which provides one of the most emotional character denouements.

Frank, Paul and Ben are friends and smalltime hoods in Hong Kong working with some local crime syndicates to rise through the ranks. The initial scenes revolve around Ben's wedding to his pretty girlfriend and the loan the slightly bumbling Frank has taken out from a local loanshark to pay for it all.

Frank is jumped by a rival gang who beat him up and steal the money, so after he recovers a little, he and Ben go to the thug's stronghold to rough him up in retaliation but they end up killing him in the process. It's too visible a murder not to draw heat so the boys decide to get together and hightail it to Vietnam, where they hear there's tons of money to be made in the black market wartime economy.

As soon as they land things turn sour when they fall into the clutches of the brutal regimes fighting over ideologies, seeing how ugly and terrifying war really is firsthand.

With their only possible score taken away, they have no choice but to contact a local hitman, Luke, who puts them into the orbit of a corrupt nightclub owner harbouring a stash of contraband gold. The boys set about joining up with Luke to lift the gold and rescue Luke's girlfriend, a performer in the club who's been forced into drug addiction and prostitution by the owner.

They no sooner get away than they find themselves chugging down a muddy river in the jungle aboard a broken-down boat with the gold in their clutches. Their friendship splinters when Ben and Frank realise that Paul is willing to sacrifice anything – and anyone – for the loot, and after their capture by and escape from the Viet Cong Paul goes his own way, having renounced all his attachments and become blinded by his ambition for power and money.

Much later, after being tended back to health after his own injuries, Ben returns to Saigon and finds Frank in tragic circumstances, aeons away from the slightly buffoonish action movie comic relief we first met. He's living on the streets, half mad with withdrawal from a crippling heroin addiction and with the bullet still in his head Paul put there slowly killing him.

There's one of two things to be said about John Woo, even if working for American studios with Mission: Impossible 2 or Face/Off tempered his natural taste for overplaying it a bit. First, he's just not that great a filmmaker (or the budgets of the 80s-era Hong Kong film industry simply didn't let him edit or score films properly). Second, he's actually a great filmmaker in the context of the industry and genre he rose through where a measured approach and a modicum of dramatic subtlety just weren't fashionable.

But this film is where he gets his most overtly political. You think you're going in for one of his classic Chow Yun Fat rogue cop actioners (only without Chow Yun Fat) with balletic, beautifully choreographed violence amid the neon lights of Woo's home city, but here the violence is both much nastier and has consequences. You can't imagine Fat or any of Woo's other heroes strung up in a Viet Cong village with the boys' captors trying to force them to shoot each other, all of them screaming and pleading not to.

The first hint is when Paul is trying to help Ben's fiance escape the aftermath of their killing the local crime boss and they find themselves in the midst of am anti-war protest that turns violent. Woo points the camera just as much at the protestors and their clash with police as he does Paul and Jane desperately trying to duck into doorways and stay out of harm's way.

It's slightly jarring, as if we're watching two movies from different genres both at once, but the script (co written by Woo) forces the two tones together by brute force until he makes you understand you're watching a tragic wartime drama about how absolute power corrupts absolutely rather than an action potboiler full of doves like the ones he's known for.

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