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Film / Bullet in the Head

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"You want revenge, motherfucker? I never lose any contest, not in Vietnam and not tonight!"

Bullet in the Head (Chinese: 喋血街頭, "Dip Hyut Gaai Tau", meaning "Bloodshed in the Streets.") is a 1990 Heroic Bloodshed film by John Woo.

Paul (Waise Lee), Ben (Tony Leung) and Frankie (Jacky Cheung) are three poor hoodlums in 1967 Hong Kong. Ben wants to get married and find a better life for himself, something that's quickly kiboshed when he and Frankie accidentally kill a rival gangbanger in revenge for him jumping Frankie earlier. In desperation, the three of them flee to wartorn Vietnam, where Pauls uncle has found work for them with his buddy, the South-Vietnamese gangster Leong (Chung Lin).

Things can't get any worse right? Yes they can. Sweet merciful heavens, they can.

Bullet in the Head is by far Woo's most personal film. Equally inspired by his own dirt poor upbringing in a Hong Kong ghetto, the tragedy of June 4th in Beijing, as well as the angst permeating Hong Kong society at the time (it was made at the same time as the 1997 turnover to China had all but been made official) it is an emotionally draining experience. If the standard epic firefights don't get you, the tragedy of the story will.


Simon Yam also co-stars as Luke, a badass CIA agent who had a Small Role, Big Impact to the three main protagonists.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Frankie's mother beats him with a shoe.
  • Action Prologue: The insanely violent gang fight between Ben and Ringo's gangs. Features people being stabbed, hit with chains and having their heads shoved through car windows in slow motion.
  • And I Must Scream: Frankie's fate, after taking the titular bullet to the head. He doesn't die, but is doomed to spend his life as a raging, brain-damaged freak on the streets of Saigon. The bullet in his head also causes him constant pain, which he attempts to soooth by shooting ungodly amounts of heroin.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: Leong's club in Saigon.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: There's the two factions of The Vietnam War, both of which are committing war crimes, Y.S. Leong, a crime boss Playing Both Sides, and Paul, whose greed ends up getting the trio in all kinds of trouble.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Ben finally manages to avenge Frankie's death by killing Paul, but is left haunted by the fact that his two best friends are gone. That said, he does have a wife and son.
  • Blood Brothers: The film is about the disastrous effect of Gold Fever and the horrors of The Vietnam War on the bond between friends, which in Woo's other movies was all but unbreakable.
  • Boom, Headshot!: The title scene has Paul putting a bullet in Frankie's head. Tragically, it doesn't kill him and causes Frank to suffer horribly before Ben ultimately has to put him out of his misery.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Frankie is the most happy-go-lucky of the trio and he suffers the worst out of all of them.
  • Broken Bird: Sally.
  • Car Fu: The film ends with the archetypal car duel where Ben and Paul just end up destroying each other's cars with head-on collisions and .45 bullets.
  • The Cavalry: Luke shows up with the U.S. Army to save the trio from the prison camp.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment. Leong forces Ben to chug an entire bottle of Whiskey in one sitting as revenge for being insulted in his Saigon club. Frankie takes the punishment for him, and passes the test gallantly.... Only for Leong to give all three of them a bottle each.
  • Cold Sniper: An American one picking of NVA sentries in the final assault.
  • Crapsack World: Nearly every character in the film is a criminal. Hong Kong is full of pro-Communist riots. Vietnam is in the middle of a civil war with both sides committing war crimes with impunity.
  • Darker and Edgier: If you thought The Killer was John Woo's most depressing movie, check this one out as well.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Ringo, a small-time gangster harassing our protagonists, initially seems like the Big Bad, but is killed fifteen minutes in, after which we're thrown into a giant Big Bad Ensemble with Paul being the True Final Boss.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The rendezvous at the river bank after the bomb attack in Vietnam, is shot near frame for frame like the latter Mexican standoff in the Sampan.
    • Paul's promise that one day "he'll hit this town in a Rolls-Royce!" He keeps his promise alright... while locked in a firefight with his best childhood friend.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Inverted as the trio becomes more distant from each other as they endure the vicious cycle of poverty and experience the Vietnam War for themselves.
  • Freudian Excuse: Paul grew up in poverty like his friends and his roadsweeper father urged him to not turn out like him. This fuels his dream of becoming rich, albeit at the cost of his humanity.
  • Freudian Trio: Ben is Superego, Paul the Id and Frankie the Ego.
  • Genre Shift: The film starts as your typical Heroic Bloodshed movie involving three triad gangsters looking to make a big score. But then they go to Vietnam, where The War is in full swing, and the movie becomes a psychological war drama akin to Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter that tears apart the bond between Blood Brothers which in Woo's other movies was all but unbreakable, before going into something combining the two for the finale as Ben goes after Paul in revenge for killing Frank.
  • Gold Fever: Paul, full-stop. He's even accused of it to his face, by Frankie.
  • Gory Deadly Overkill Title of Fatal Death
  • Guns Akimbo: It is a John Woo film after all. Frank wields a pair of pistols during the nightclub shoot-out.
  • Homage:
  • I Have No Son!: Frankie's parents kick him out of the house for getting into a fight.
  • Improperly Placed Firearms: The M203 grenade launcher is used, despite not entering service until 1969. Likewise, the Colt Model 653 Carbine didn't enter service until 1973.
  • Mercy Kill: Ben is forced to put Frank out of his misery when the bullet in his brain is making him suffer.
  • Mexican Standoff: Paul pulls a gun on Ben when he starts throwing gold in the river, prompting Frank to pull a gun on him.
  • Rags to Riches: Paul is the son of a roadsweeper and has dreams of becoming rich. By the end of the film, he achieves that goal.
  • Revised Ending: The film originally ended with Ben confronting Paul in the boardroom and shooting him in the same manner he did Frank.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The trio, plus Luke, pull off a daring raid to rescue Sally from Mr. Leong. Ultimately, she gets taken hostage, shot, and later dies on the boat in Luke's arms.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Both sides in the Vietnam war are portrayed as this. The ARVN are shown executing civilians and openly looting a jewelry store after tearing it to shreds with an M60. The NVA for their part are sadistic torturers, who force their prisoners to execute each other with pistols and assault rifles.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: An instrumental version of "I'm a Believer" by The Monkees plays during the opening gang fight. Later on, a different version plays as Luke guns a man down in the restroom.
  • Stealth Insult: Ben tries doing this to Leong. He basically calls him a complete creep, under the guise of being concerned for Sally's well being. Unfortunately for him, Leong is very much aware of what he's doing, and will have none of it.
  • Stock Footage: The helicopter footage used in the camp raid was a mixture of stock footage from the Vietnam war, as well as scenes from another Vietnam movie.
  • 'Tis Only a Bullet in the Brain: Paul shoots Frankie in the head. He survives, but is addicted to morphine to take away the pain, forcing Ben, his remaining friend to perform a Mercy Kill.
  • War Is Hell: None of the main characters, except for Paul, are left better off after enduring the Vietnam War.
  • We Used to Be Friends: A thoroughly straightforward (and deeply tragic) example. Paul's dirt-poor upbringing might serve to explain things, but it can never excuse his betrayal of Ben and attempted murder of Frankie.


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