Bullet in the Head Review
John Woo's Hong Kong films are a world away in quality from the atrocities he has inflicted on film fans since he went to Hollywood. A central reason for the greater quality of his earlier films is Woo's role in their screenplays and the personal connection he had to those stories. It is difficult to claim that any of his action films are wholly personal works, but it seems that his earlier films do draw from his own experiences growing up in Hong Kong. Bullet In The Head is the film closest to Woo's own personal history as it is set in 1960's squalor, and amongst student revolt. When the film is set, Woo would have been almost twenty years old and dreaming of escaping the Hong Kong housing projects through acting in films.
Bullet In The Head has an unusual place in Woo's career as it tries to capture a specific time and place, even though it is a familiar tale of brotherhood ruined by avarice. His three brothers-in-arms, Frank, Ben, and Paul, grew up in the housing projects and fight for lives free from crime, poverty, and lack of ambition. Paul wishes to escape the life of his dustman father and to make money, Frank is bullied and loyal and fights for his friends, and Ben, well he is a stand-up kind of guy. When they find themselves fighting a local gang, things go too far and they need to escape the Police quickly. Paul arranges a dodgy smuggling deal which takes them to Vietnam and Ben must leave his wife and Frank his family. Things don't go as Paul planned and they join an underworld of people trapped in the chaotic war zone by drugs and violence. Woo shows the characters driven apart by the consequences of how each survives. He borrows his own story of brotherhood from A Better Tomorrow and transfers it abroad where the film moves into the territory of movies like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. It is the latter film that Bullet In The Head most resembles with its central characters taken from their homeland and exposed to dark chaos. It differs from its Hollywood counterparts because this is a story told through an Eastern perspective and the film, whilst no means anti-American, does capture the mood of a continent caught between US imperialism and Communism.
Many of Woo's recurring motifs crop up as does his characteristic style. There are nods to French cinema in the character of the white suited hitman (Simon Yam) with his beloved poster of Catherine Deneuve, and there are signature moments of contrasts between purity and destruction such as the school yard used as an execution ground by the Vietnamese Police. We also get the Peckinpah slowmo and the potent use of popular music. Mostly though, Woo is interested in how brotherhood breaks down. His three friends are similar human beings who through events and how they respond to them end up in very different places. Paul's desire for riches becomes pathological, Frank's naive belief in friends becomes his undoing, and Ben gives up love, riches and seeks loyalty and honour. Rather than treat Paul as a simple villain, Woo offers understanding of the son who will do anything to get away from poverty and in the final showdown intercuts joyous scenes from the three friends' original relationship to remind us how events have turned a friendship into a battle to the death.
Woo's sentimental approach to the story may prove cloying or simplistic to some. This view has some validity as women in the movie are all beautiful victims to be rescued or destroyed by the men around them, and the whole Vietnam war is little more than a convenient backdrop for the hyperbolic personal conflicts. Despite this barefaced manipulation, Bullet In The Head is successful as an action movie and a moral drama. I feel the film is most successful in the latter respect and the Hong Kong set scenes achieve a strong sense of authenticity whilst the Vietnam scenes are slightly clichéd examples of the former. Bullet In The Head works more successfully in its theatrical cut rather than with the extended ending which Woo restored later for the DVD and laserdisc releases. The theatrical cut ends on a visual rhyme which gives the film a more fable like quality that the DVD cut loses in a longer pompous metaphor.
Woo's films are filled with explosions, and blood and guts, but, at his best, he remembers to re-affirm his anti-violent stance through a strong dramatic understanding of the men he films. Arguably, Bullet In The Head is Woo's most successful film in mixing human drama and stylistic action - the setpieces in the nightclub and the Viet Cong camp are some of the best action Woo has filmed, whilst the fraternity of the friends equals that of the three leads in A Better Tomorrow. It proves that Woo knew how to make action films with great heart, hopefully someone will give him a chance to do so again.
The Ultimate Collection comes in a thick cardboard dust sleeve and the box houses two discs. The first dual layer disc contains the main feature and offers branching options so that the viewer can recreate the various cuts of the film. You can choose to watch the film in the longer DVD cut, the DVD cut with deleted scenes included, or the original theatrical cut. The quality of the various elements differs greatly and the DVD cut looks far better than the additional materials and when you watch the two other cuts the effect of the branching is very obvious visually. However the presentation of the DVD cut looks as fine as the film ever has with a sharp anamorphic remastered transfer, marginal noise in the picture and good colours especially flesh tones. It seems to be a little more colourful than the Hong Kong Legends print. The additional materials are less impressive with some burnt in dual subs, interlaced transfers, and much less definition and washed out colours. The deleted scenes do include the infamous “urine drinking” scene which cut into the film makes far more sense than the usual DVD cut of that scene. The remainder of deleted scenes are extensions of existing ones in the film and they do make for a better film in terms of exposition. The picture below indicates the quality of the deleted scenes.
The audio options are limited to Cantonese mono for the additional scenes, but Cantonese DTS and Mandarin DD5.1 are provided for the DVD cut. Although I wouldn't describe the surround mixes as natural, the mixes are well done with the DTS track having good spatial separation and appropriate mixing of music, effects and dialogue. Some of the sound effects do not sound like they are from the original audio and this can mean that they lack some depth and position. Still the surround tracks are well done. All of the audio tracks lack noticeable distortion or hiss. The removable English subtitles vary in quality from some poor English translation in the first hour to virtually faultless in the last hour – I am told that JoySales get different translators for different parts of the film so the work gets done quicker, but the result here, as on their Dog Bite Dog disc, is hugely differing quality in different parts of the film.
The second disc is a single layer affair which packages the deleted scenes and the original ending separately from the movie. There is the featurette Codes of Bullets V which is a worrying hymn to firearms quite out of keeping with the message of the movie, it is also disturbingly non-ironic – guns are apparently “an extension of power”. Two trailers for the film are included with photo galleries, but the best extra is a rather prosaic interview with Waise Lee. He talks about the different versions of the film, injuring himself on set, and calls the movie a film “for adults”. The extras here don't match up to the goodies on the Hong Kong Legends disc and feel a bit scrabbled together.
One of John Woo's best films with a transfer that is the best out there, and the deleted scenes that fans have wanted for a while. Owners of the R2 disc may want to ask themselves how much they want the deleted scenes and different versions, but for new purchasers this is the one to buy.