Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bullet in the Head

John Woo's films (particularly his early Hong Kong works) owe more than a little to the films of Sergio Leone. Like Leone's, they tend to center on tough, violent loners who've lost the ability to relate to other humans but through violence and, many of his films deal with the wolfish, masculine camaraderie that develops between two or more characters with these qualities. Further, all of these films subvert this machismo a bit, paying lip service to the emotional emptiness of lives lived without trust or compassion. But despite this superimposed complexity, Woo and Leone's films are really reveling in the simplicity of their characters' outlook on the world. The hardest moral choice facing these characters is whether or not they should shoot a man that they've sort-of, kind-of come to like.

Bullet in the Head is only a little different in that it takes a stab at something a little less arch. The film is set during the Vietnam War and features three Chinese buddies traveling to the war-torn region in order to make some money out of the chaos. The three are quite naive in thinking they can catch this particular tiger by the tail, and soon they're in trouble with both the North Vietnamese army and a powerful gangster in the region. As they attempt to flee back to Hong Kong with their lives, their friendship begins to splinter and they are forced to face the ugliness within themselves.

I have a weakness in me for movies dealing with the burgeoning or fracturing friendships between tough, angry men, quality be damned (to wit: I actually found the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin genuinely involving in Star Wars: Episode 3, despite it being part of a truly risible film), so it's hard to not like these aspects of this movie. But overall, it's a ludicrous film, particularly when asking the viewer to take the effects of bullets seriously. All through the movie, the characters leap about with guns blazing, but there's absolutely no sense that these things actually fire bullets. Rather, they seem to emit a generalized swath of destruction that explodes windows, drywall, and t-shirts. There's nothing wrong with this; indeed, the hyper-reality is a large part of what's appealing about Woo's work. Bullet in the Head, though, is hilariously inconsistent. It tries to give us the fun of shoot-outs where people empty clips at one another, but then asks us to contemplate how horrible various war crimes are. About as horrible as being shot by a man leaping at you in slow-motion, I'd wager.

At the shootouts and the tough guy archetypes, Woo is aces. His style of staging action scenes has been labeled "balletic" ad nausea, but it's as true now as it ever was, even after the years of Hollywood folk borrowing his technique for their own shallow purposes. Watching these sequences is very much like viewing the oft-coveted, too-rarely-seen dance-off and one wonders when Woo will let his characters put down the guns and pick up the ballet shoes.

But, at least in Bullet in the Head, Woo fails at just about everything else. The first half hour or so when Woo sets up the characters is confusing and overedited. In these opening moments, every shot feels too short, and every scene too long. It's like the movie is hiding behind the editing, trying to hide its character development or make the dialogue scenes as exciting or thrilling as the gun play. It isn't until the violence kicks in that one gets a sense as to who these people are, and even then they're pretty much reduced to one character trait apiece. There are some actresses in this film that should be ashamed for agreeing to appear as such weak-willed fantasy objects. And in the movie's final act, the characters brood endlessly over their suffering with nary a hint that they bear any responsibility for it. Like the guns, they bear no resemblance to anything from our world. But rather than using that to achieve a larger-than-life mythos for any of these characters as sometimes results from similar endeavors (see: Plissken, Snake), it serves to make them seem like the half-formed fantasy characters created by breathless children playing guns. And then we're supposed to care about their suffering and feel pleased when one of them takes revenge in the final, interminable scene? Please.

It's been some years since I've seen Woo's major Hong Kong works, Hard Boiled or The Killer, and so can't account for the quality of either excepting the voice of myself as a delighted sixteen-year-old (who also, it should be noted, totally, completely, without any reservation dug Woo's Jean-Claude Van Damme starring American debut, Hard Target, and would probably have had trouble seeing how absolutely shitty the Star Wars prequels were). While watching Bullet in the Head, though, I began to wonder if my previous affinity for these John Woo films was not solely due to my aforementioned weakness for the cry of the lonely, afflicted men that populated them. Aside from the opening, the film works in individual scenes, but they feel pulled out of different films. When glorying in the movement of excessive violence, Bullet in the Head soars. When trying to show serious consequences to this violence, it shoots itself in the foot.


Mike De Luca said...

Your review is spot-on. Having also been Woo-struck worshipper in my high school years, I sometimes question my former perceptions. It's quite an odd formula. Parts Douglas Sirk melodrama, latent homoeroticism, one-dimensional female characters, and balletic shoot-outs. "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled" succeed on a higher level, I feel, due to the charisma of Chow Yun Fat, who seems to revel in the absurdity of it all. But, while a slice above Michael Dudikoff, "Bullet in the Head" is about as derivative as they come. I mean, when Luke says Frank had changed, I recall muttering at the screen, "Yeah, into Christopher Walken".

David Wester said...

I'll revisit those movies when Woo makes a movie about dancing... an opening moment in this movie shows one of the characters teaching dance and it's really cool. I appreciate your agreement. Looking at the external reviews on IMDB made me feel very, very lonely.

Anonymous said...

A masterpiece. I saw this movie many years back with my friends and it just exceeded all our expectations. This movie is full of non stop violence and is hard to imagine such of movie that basically focuses on violence.
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