John Woo & The Weight of Violence

John Woo & The Weight of Violence
On John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990)

John Woo is a director of blunt force, of simple, maybe simplistic emotions, I think it’s fair to say he at least takes the implicit belief system of the action genre as a given. I’ve never been much interested in those themes of honour and brotherhood and in return he’s never been much interested in women. Even in Bullet in the Head (1990), the biggest outlier in his filmography (putting aside what he made in the People’s Republic, where the mechanics of decision making are much more obscure), which interrogates so many of those givens, still has some pretty incredible sexism. The just-married Ben (Tony Leung) decides to flee the country with his two best friends, going to Vietnam to escape the police after getting violent revenge on a gang leader. Woo cross cuts him, at best, half-explaining this to his sad and helpless looking wife with the diffusing of a bomb. Of course she never gets the chance to explode on him, and the more world night club singer Sally (Yolinda Yam), who Ben seems to fall for once he’s in Vietnam, doesn’t make it too far through the film, killed rather than left to tend the home.

But the friendship, the brotherhood that causes Ben to run away, is portrayed with some ambivalence; the three of them riding their bikes straight towards the edge of the pier evokes the games of chicken the lost, nihilistic teens in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) play; driving as close to the cliff as they can before stopping simply for the sake of it, because what else is there to do. At points Woo seems more turned on and more thoughtful than he ever has, the way he shows Ben and Frank (Jackie Cheung) deciding to get revenge on that gang leader is quite brilliant: at first, Frank lies, it is Ben’s wedding night after all, telling him that he’s wasn’t attacked, he’d just cut his head falling down. Ben nods and then smashes his own head into the wall, there’s a lot of pain and a bad bruise, but no blood. He proves Frank’s lying, and so he confesses that he was struck with a glass bottle. Ben picks up a bottle and for a second it seems like he still doesn’t believe him, that he’s about hit himself again, until Frank, understanding Ben better than we do, picks up two more bottles; they run off to find this gang leader.

The films politics though are not so clear, more an expression of the same youthful nihilism of its characters than a considered position, replicating the images of the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square is impactful, it does show a greater engagement, if not a deep understanding. But once we get to Vietnam, the war is raging on and the Viet Cong portrayed as the cackling torturers of The Deer Hunter (1978), an obvious reference point and a film of as much contemporary prestige as empty posturing and racism. There is some more ambiguity with the Americans who are shot almost totally facelessly. Whilst they do save our leads from the VC camp, they do so by shooting indiscriminately into it, as if their couldn’t possibly be any prisoners. The American POW’s that were there had already been killed, which feels like it’s skirting the point somewhat, gesturing towards it without getting into the messy details. For the most part Woo’s view of the war seems to come from received wisdom, the view from Time Magazine and that small handful of famous photos. As one character puts it: “forget it, everywhere is the same,” expanding that famous blood-in-the-water quote from Chinatown (1974) into something more dramatic and universalist, if at the expense of certain contexts and complexities.

The subplot borrowed from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), the boys find a crate of gold in the midst of the jungle and slowly lose trust in one another, increasingly paranoid one will turn on the others for it, seems along the same universal lines, a comment on the greed implicit in human nature. But Paul (Waise Lee) who, of the three, goes to by far the greatest extremes for the money—shooting a pinned and panicked Frank so the they aren’t heard and have to flee without it—returns to Hong Kong and becomes a corporate guy, that madness subsumed, channeled; greed is at the very least encouraged by the capitalist system, if not borne of it. It might only be a half step, but Ben trying to throw the gold into the water is a more engaged, if less iconic, image than Chow Yun-fat using burning money as a lighter in A Better Tomorrow (1986).

I don’t want to suggest that Woo’s relationship to the violence he so loves to portray is, outside of Bullet, totally cavalier, it’s not all deeply aestheticised nihilistic cool, but there certainly is an awful of that. It’s what you expect and so when he breaks from it, when the civilians fleeing the hospital in Hard Boiled (1992) are gunned down en-masse, it’s really shocking. But s soon as we get to Vietnam, far from the boyish fights of home, Woo keep us at a similar distance from the violence and holds us there. On multiple separate occasions the leads are looking down the barrel of a gun, thinking they’re about to be shot only to find out the real target is behind them. This isn’t violence as an extension of their big and exciting emotions, it hardly involves them, even as they get increasingly tangled into it. With as little access to why any of this is happening as the characters, we are left disoriented and scared.

And that’s before it gets really harrowing. At the VC camp Frank is forced to shoot those American prisoners in an endlessly long, gruelling sequence filled with crying, howling and screaming, when Ben takes over to save his friend any more trauma, he can only laugh like a madman and pretend to enjoy the bloodshed. When they decide again to get revenge—a violence borne of emotion, if retaliatory ones from being pushed to such extremes—not only do they only half get it, the Americans shooting right through the middle of it, the lead up was just too horrible for it to feel satisfying; there’s no honour here, just bodies and blood and dirt. That nihilism isn’t arrogance, it isn’t flippancy, it’s a necessity, and so when Ben needless starts a war with gangsters, it makes a twisted kind of sense without ever feeling cool, going even further than The Wild Bunch (1969) which makes a similar dive into pointless violence feel like an act of heroism against a cruel world.

That said, I’m not sure the final car chase is supposed to feel quite so exhausting, and with Woo’s style more re-contextualised than changed, a character surviving getting shot in the head from point blank range feels much more absurd than in A Better Tomorrow for example, it feels like cheating even if it’s to no deceptive end. And whilst the boys all do end up trying to kill each other (with varying degrees of success), for just about every reason imaginable—greed, madness, revenge, mercy—I think Woo still fundamentally believes in their friendship, their brotherhood. It’s something beautiful soiled by the darkness of the world, even if that darkness is essential. Certainly there isn’t any other positive philosophy built to stand against that nihilism, but he asks so many questions of himself, it seems only enough that he doesn’t have all the answer. It’s hard not to wonder where Woo’s work might have gone had he continued down this path, if he had more time and space to explore these ideas deeper and deeper, instead of receding back into more simplistic stories. It takes a swing as a big as Bullet in the Head to make a film of as much bravura and formal mastery as Hard Boiled seem like a step backwards.