Bullet in the Head

Bullet in the HeadIt’s a fact. Had anyone other than John Woo directed Mission: Impossible II, the summer blockbuster would have been 10, count ’em, 10 MINUTES long. Maybe less counting the credits. It’s just his style. If Tom Cruise so much as adjusts his fly, Woo shoots the gesture from 18 camera positions — all in super slow-mo — with wranglers ready to release a swarm of symbolic moths on the director’s cue.

With Woo, EVERYTHING is a production, more than that, it’s a meticulously choreographed ACTION sequence. The man’s been at it since the early ’70s in Hong Kong, and he’s been so sharp, for so long that fans like Quentin Tarantino even aped his unique vision, to the point where Hollywood finally came calling for the true Sultan of Slow-Mo. One of Woo’s most celebrated films is Bullet In The Head (1990, 126 minutes), which bares the early inklings of his artistry, and exhibits more social substance than has been afforded him so far in America.

The movie: In 1967, three fresh-faced hooligans must flee Hong Kong when one of them accidentally kills a rival gang leader. Since they’re on the run, the three decide they might as well become smugglers and they’re contracted to carry goods to war-torn Saigon. But the deal goes bad forcing Ben, Frank and Paul (Tony Leung,Jacky Cheung and Waise Lee) to align themselves with Luke, a seriously cool hired gun (Simon Yam), who helps them lay siege to the den of the local crime boss — oh, and also save a babe they’re all sweet on. A two-fisted gun battle to end all two-fisted gun battles ensues and just keeps going until it spills into the city streets and eventually winds up right smack in the middle of the Vietnam War. Lust gives way to greed when Paul discovers — mid-gun fight — a strong box of gold and his devotion to his comrades and their now heroic goal of saving the damsel in distress becomes the LEAST of his priorities. The situation gets worse when the group lands in a Viet Cong POW camp where each are forced to shoot American soldiers for the guards’ amusement. Tragedy continues to compound, until vengeance becomes the order of the day and the carefree days of shoving fellas’ heads through car windows for grins are forgotten memories.

Notables: No breasts. Lost count at 184 corpses. Gratuitous urination. Rope jumping. Bottle to the head. Multiple explosions. Puking. River boat fireball. Hypodermic closeups. Rumbling tanks. One Mexican standoff. Student riots. Multiple point-blank executions.

Quotables: Nothing too amusing in the subtitles. Except when the leads kept referring to each other as "buddies." That’s funny.

Time codes: Blushing bride freaks out when wedding guest kisses her on the cheek (13:35). Bomb squad grunt has a bad day at the office (22:30). Motorcycle bomber creates some rush-hour gridlock (25:50). The writer/director’s most overt allusion to the horrors of Tiananmen Square (39:53). Bumper-car duel to the death (1:54:35).

Final thought: Easily the most numbingly-violent "buddy" picture EVER. Woo masterfully melds contemplative storytelling with white-hot ballets of carnage — something his American-made flicks have yet to explore.