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Film review: Bullet in the Head

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In John Woo's most recent U.S. film, "Face/Off," John Travolta and Nicolas Cage transformed into each other, via mannerisms and plot devices. But that trick is nothing compared to metamorphoses of his three leads in his 1990 action piece "Bullet in the Head."

A peculiar take by Woo on "The Three Musketeers," "Bullet in the Head" tackles some of the great themes in cinema — friendship and loyalty, and how greed and revenge affect them — in the graphic, ultra-violent style that pervades most of his pre-U.S. releases.

But be forewarned, even diehard Woo fans may find themselves sorely tested by this intense and brutally unrelenting film, which makes even his 1993 action-thriller "Hard-Boiled" seem tame by comparison. It even required the director to take a break from his usual fare, which he fulfilled by making "Once a Thief," a romantic action-comedy.

His stars are Ben (Tony Leung), Paul (Waise Lee) and Frank (Jacky Cheung), three lifelong friends in 1967 Hong Kong. Though the bumbling, trouble-prone Frank and Paul are simply spinning their wheels in their riot-torn homeland, Ben is planning a future with his bride-to-be, Jane (Fennie Yuen).

But their wedding reception is interrupted by Frank, who has been injured during a tussle with a local thug, Ringo, while on his way to the ceremony. Seeking revenge, Ben and Frank confront the gangster and accidentally kill him.

On the lam, the three friends flee to war-torn Vietnam, where they hope to flourish as smugglers, bringing in medical supplies for Viet Cong rebels. However, their first shipment is destroyed and they fall in with Luke, an Amerasian hit man working for a local crime boss, Mr. Leong.

Together, the four plan to rob the mobster and free Sally (Yolinda Yam), a former Hong Kong torchsinger. During the subsequent melee, Sally is fatally wounded and the increasingly avaricious Paul finds Leong's cache of gold. That booty ultimately comes back to haunt them — especially Frank — when the quartet ends up lost in Viet Cong-held territory.

As mentioned, this is particularly rough territory. But rich performances (Yat does Chow Yun Fat as well as the man himself) make it all worthwhile. (Cheung is best, as his character changes from a joker to a brain-damaged, drug-addicted assassin.)

It should also be noted that Woo, rightfully called the master of "the dance of death," pokes fun at his reputation in the opening scene, which juxtaposes a gang fight with a class full of dance students. And few of his endings are as dazzling as the finale here, which features a side-by-side car chase/gunfight between Ben and Paul, who has become a ruthless crime boss in his own right.

"Bullet in the Head" is not rated but would certainly receive an R for wall-to-wall violence, gore, profanity, drug use, torture, some lewd lyrics sung by Cheung and brief partial nudity.