AsianMovieWeb logo
Original Title:
Die xue jie tou

Hong Kong 1990

Action, Drama, Thriller

John Woo

Tony Leung
Jackie Cheung
Waise Lee
Simon Yam
Fennie Yuen
Yolinda Yam
Lam Chung
Leung Biu-Ching
Chang Gan-Wing
Lau Shek Yin
John Woo

Search AsianMovieWeb

Bullet in the Head

Story: In the year 1967 Hong Kong is drowning in chaos as political unrest, protests and street fights are the order of the day. The three friends Ben (Tony Leung), Frank (Jackie Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) live through these harsh times and survive by always being at each other's side. One day Ben finally wants to marry his girlfriend Jane (Fennie Yuen). He has no money to arrange the party, but Frank helps him out by lending some money for him. However, Frank is attacked by a bunch of thugs and gets injured. Ben wants to revenge his friend and looks for the leader of the gang. By accident, he kills him and has to go into hiding. Luckily, his two friends are supporting him and stay at his side.
With the help of a guy they know, the three manage to emigrate to Saigon, where they are supposed to deliver some illegal goods to Mr. Leong (Lam Chung). But the chaos of the Vietnam war costs them their merchandise, which is why they seek the help of their contact Luke (Simon Yam). Luke helps them to straighten things out with Leong. However, Ben also wants to free the singer Sally (Yolinda Yan), who is hold captive and is used by Leong. The three friends and the killer Luke assault the headquarter of Leong, free Sally and even manage to get their hands on a box of gold.
While at the run, the three friends have to experience the chaos and insanity of Vietnam war first hand. It is a war that will change the three best friends forever...

Review: "Bullet in the Head" is without a doubt John Woo's most ambitious and for many fans also his best movie. And rightly so. Woo manages in an impressive manner to bring his trademarks like dual-guns, slow-mo and stylish shoot-outs onto screen, while at the same time creating a piece of film, that doesn't only crawl deep under your skin, but even goes right to your stomach. "Bullet in the Head" is the superlative of bitter, gritty, sad and engaging. The characters all get traumatized and eventually destroyed by war. The blows of fate our heroes have to cope with are just too numerous and extensive for us not to care about. John Woo creates an action drama, a tour de force, that delivers so much more than what we expected from him. "Bullet in the Head" is distressing and feels like a brain wash that will stick with you days after viewing the film.

The opening with its hasty and fast edited introduction of the main protagonists already gives us an idea of the chaos and violence we will get to see the next two hours. We see protesters, who rise against the british colonial power and get beaten down by their police force. Still, until now everything is still within the framework of a typical Heroic Bloodshed movie made by Woo. The characters are the best friends and they help each other out whenever they can. No matter what they do, they do it together. This strong bond of friendship soon is put on the test, however. This is because the movie heads for a different direction than what we might be used to see from the director. Our heroes don't go against a mutual enemy or traitor, and by doing so as a team prove that their friendship is their most powerful weapon, but instead they soon slowly but surely get broken by the things they see in the world. Retribution or vengeance, these are all things that aren't of much importance to this movie. It is the way the characters develop, the way they get broken and the reasons behind it, that make this movie so incredibly depressing and gritty.

The three friends around Ben always try to be together and to hold onto their friendship and moral conception, but they are eventually compelled to do things that destroy their self image and make them someone else. Especially fascinating and brutal is the part where Frank and Ben are being held by the Vietnamese and are forced to shoot american prisoners. These scenes are so hard, merciless and intense, that they will burn themselves into your head. You can almost watch the protagonists' mind shatter bit by bit, and study how chaos, destruction and meaningless violence seems to alter everything around them.
Furthermore, we have to watch as Paul's greed drives a wedge between him and his friends until he eventually betrays his friendship in the worst of all ways.

As it is typical for a John Woo film "Bullet in the Head" is also full of overdrawn characters and some overacting. Still, somehow Woo always manages to let the magic of his film do the talking, so that despite the sudden and messy editing, as well as a sometimes contrived soundtrack, the emotional scenes always manage to be really engaging. This is also thanks to the great performances by Tony Leung ("Infernal Affairs", "Hero") and Jackie Cheung ("Perhaps Love", "Jiang Hu"). At times they also might provide a somewhat exaggerated performance, but always do a very convincing job, anyway. This might sound like a contradiction in itself, but that's just John Woo. He knows how to make his actors walk this thin red line.
The cast is complemented by Waise Lee as a friend, who slowly turns into the enemy. He just happens to look a bit too comic-like at times. Still, he does his stuff well enough. Simon Yam ("Exiled", "Election"), on the other hand, plays the ubercool killer who is shooting his way through the enemies with dual guns, dressed in a white smoking and of course with a cigar in his mouth.

How is the action supposed to look like typical John Woo stuff, when the movie is set in the djungle of Saigon? Well, it works. Besides, the movie doesn't only take place at the djungle, but there are also several gangster headquarters serving as sets, of course. The amount of action in this flick is just breathtaking. After a relatively quiet opening, we get action nonstop. And even if there is a break, then these breaks feature some incredibly thrilling scenes, that will bind you to your chair with their level of intensity. Nevertheless, the movie also takes its time to scatter several dramatic and emotional scenes throughout the film. The great and fast pacing really leaves no space for boredom.
But let's get back to the action. The shootout at Leong's headquarter really can go on par with the finales of some of the best action flicks out there. As already said, Simon Yam has the coolest scenes, but the other three also have to use weapons in order to survive. And of course, they defend themselves in best John Woo overstyle modus.
There are also a lot of shoot-outs between the Vietcongs and the Americans, in which our heroes get caught in. Our heroes' escape from the internment camp, which is backed up by an American special force team and leads to some impressive explosions that make this sequence look very epic, underlines how ambitious Woo approached the making of this film. The action surely is nothing less than amazing..

It really remains a mystery why "Bullet in the Head" didn't do so well at the box-office. The movie mixes drama and action very well and in a very balanced manner, delivers a nice story and proves to be everything that "A Better Tomorrow 3" should have been. Which is no wonder as Woo originally wrote this script for the third installment of his heroic bloodshed trilogy, but then he got into a fight with Tsui Hark, which forced Hark to write his own script set in Saigon. You need proof? How about the scene when Leong forces Ben to drink a bottle of booze? This is exactly the same scene Mark described of his past in "A Better Tomorrow"!
Of course, as always you can also criticize John Woo's style, which might be a little bit too much in love with itself, there are also some overdrawn emotional scenes that might not go well with every viewer, but what really has to be pointed out is that this movie doesn't only entertain, but leaves a lasting impression on the audience. Fully loaded with action highlights and a story that depicts the downfall of a friendship because of war's atrocity, "Bullet in the Head" is not your standard Woo-film, but a depressing piece of work that goes much deeper and will certainly absorb you even after the credits. Without a doubt, this is one of the best, if not THE best movie of John Woo!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
Buy this movie:

Yesasia Logo