In the realm of action cinema, there are critics and there are fans. The critics, as they so often do, tend to smugly turn their nose to the one genre of filmmaking that actually sets out to accomplish one of the first and foremost goals of our most beloved art-form. That goal is entertainment. Those pesky critics, snobby and as superficial as they are, do have at least one leg to stand on with their elitist point of view – the action genre all too often is lacking in originality. You may see an occasional glimpse of brilliance at your local theater when that expensive vehicle, provided by the car manufacturer themselves no doubt, explodes in a fiery engulfment while our hero only just narrowly avoids death. Unfortunately, these small voyages into pure adrenaline are only there for the temporary and usually seem to be a freak occurrence. There is one action auteur I know of though, and chances are you’ve heard his name as well. It’s John Woo. If you’ve grown up watching Face Off, Mission Impossible II and Windtalkers though, you’d probably suspect me of being a glue sniffing hayseed. No, I couldn’t give two shakes for the films John Woo has produced as of late. Even though I do not hold any antagonism towards the late great master, and do hold hope for his eventual return to important action cinema, I recognize and feel great disappointment over his somewhat recent dive in artistic excellence. As much as it pains me to read the latest reviews for Paycheck, or whatever he may be promoting these days, I often long to re-live the experiences his great work in Hong Kong left me with.
Born in Guanzhou, Canton in 1946, his birth name was Wu Yu-Sen. His family moved to Hong Kong when he was about five years old, but were not immediately successful in any manner. The family lived meagerly, and in various rough neighborhoods, which no doubt introduced Woo to the criminal lifestyle that he would at much later points in his career, heavily stylize. Eventually his family was given aid by a local church who put John through school and gave him a new direction to his life. One of the first paths he chose was to become a priest, but as one of the fathers told him, he was too free-spirited and artistic to take up the cloth. Woo was let down, but understood that his destiny lay elsewhere, and that the cinema was always there for him. Being that children could get into the theaters for free, Woo’s mother would often take him to see Western films. Musicals, comedies and the likes of Fred Astaire were amongst his favorites at this young age. As he grew, so did his appetite for cinema and by the time he was a teenager, he began making experiments with his friends and some borrowed film equipment. Around the age of 22, he was making his own films. He had developed his own ideas about cinema and was truly coming into his own. He would steal film books from the library, and read pretty much anything on the subject he could. His first dream of becoming an actor (in order to boost his self esteem) fell by the way-side as he delved more into the subject. Reading up and studying the French new-wave, Woo was sucked in by the ideas of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and others. The idea of a director as the ultimate author of the film appealed to Woo, and these influences stuck with him his whole career. In 1969 Woo landed his first actual job, with no experience or actual training, as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios. This step was only a small one and helped him to gather experience before moving on to one of the most important stops he would make before setting out to make his own features.
In 1971 Woo packed his things and began work at the highly influential Shaw Bros. Studio. Famous for epic musicals and pulp martial art films in their hey-day, Woo was tutored under one of their most famous directors, Chang Cheh, who directed such classic Kung Fu films as Five Deadly Venoms, Crippled Avengers and Iron Flag. It was there that Woo learned much of what he wanted from cinema. Chang Cheh helped to teach him editing tricks, and Cheh’s films showed him much of the themes his later works would encompass. In 1973, Woo was given his first feature film as director. A small Kung Fu vehicle called The Young Dragons. Unfortunately the film was shelved for two years by the studio because of what the studio considered excessive violence, but by the time it was released it became a large success and Woo was invited to join the team over at Golden Harvest. Woo stuck with martial arts until he made the comedy The Pilferer’s Progress, which then lead to more comedy roles. At this point, Woo became sick of it all. He was no longer in charge of his own destiny and felt like he was being untrue to himself and directing film after film that he no longer cared about. He began drinking heavily and living a state of depression, with only moderate artistic successes. The first film to break that mold however, was Heroes Shed No Tears, an action film about mercenaries inside Vietnam trying to rescue a drug lord, the film is on level with anything you might see in an early eighties Chuck Norris film, but it was his first film to feature the chaotic action violence he would later make famous. Once again though, Woo ran into trouble with the studio when they deemed it too violent, and once again, his film was shelved. At this time, Woo was thought to be hard to work with, and had few friends in the industry. After being introduced through a mutual acquaintance (Dean Shek, actor and comedian), Woo met and befriended popular director/producer Tsui Hark. The two hit it off and were at once throwing ideas at one another. After a while, Hark made John the offer to direct a film he had been working on. That film was titled A Better Tomorrow.
A Better Tomorrow was the film that spurred John Woo as an artist and created a whole new genre of cinema. It was essentially the tale of two brothers, Ho (played by Shaw Bros. alumni Ti Lung) and Kit (the late pop singer turned actor in his first role) who aimed to play both sides of the law. The film may not have been the first Hong Kong crime film to feature such precise themes as loyalty, honor and self sacrifice, but it was the best up until that point and the action sequences were like none that had ever come before it, with guns used more like hand-to-hand weapons than projectile weapons, and with emphasis focused on skill more than random shooting. The characters and their intertwining relationships, combined with the in your face melodrama and explosive action made for a mix that the cinema had never seen up until that point, and John Woo had now at last made a name for himself. The film, once released, became a huge box office draw and was an immediate classic and convinced the heads over at Golden Harvest to finally release the long shelved Heroes Shed No Tears. Woo’s next film was a minor picture called Just Heroes, which although it was a fantastic bit of action cinema, is almost universally hailed as one of his weaker pictures. The story revolves around a Triad family and who is to take the place of the now deceased leader. The film was made to financially benefit Wu Ma and Chang Cheh from what most sources say, and the director’s position was passed around between Woo, Wu Ma and even actor Danny Lee. Woo wasn’t entirely pleased with the final product, but did in fact have fun with it, as the final product so evidently shows.
Woo’s next film came in the form of his only sequel, A Better Tomorrow II. Woo was at first highly against the idea of making a sequel, but after much nagging by Tsui Hark, decided to go through with it. The film starred the cast from the first film, this time with Chow Yun-Fat returning as the twin brother of the first film’s Mark Gor, who was living in America during the course of the first film. He is paired with an aging gangster played by Dean Shek (Just to note, it is rumored that the film was made to pay back Dean Shek who was in financial straits at the time), who has gone insane from grief over the fact that his daughter was killed by a group of gangsters who had taken over his triad family back in Hong Kong. The film was small on plot, but huge on action. Chow Yun-Fat was able to play an even cooler character than in the first film, without the handicapped leg to hold him down this time, and the film turned out to be one of John Woo’s bloodiest films to date. The conclusion is one gigantic action set piece where a mansion is literally torn apart room to room with blood and dead bodies decorating the walls. Words can barely describe the madness that ensues. The production of the film was littered with bad blood behind the scenes though, with the studio wanting the film cut down to a reasonable length (rather than 3+ hours) and Tsui Hark coming up with ideas that conflicted with Woo’s on how the film should be edited. Hark and Woo made up, and even though the film certainly could have used the necessary character development that was likely cut out, it stands as one of Woo’s most fun action pictures available.
John Woo and Tsui Hark teamed up once again in 1989, to deliver the film which would break Woo’s recognition worldwide. The film was The Killer, and stands out as his greatest artistic achievement to this day. The story focuses on Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat in another signature role), a killer for hire who accidentally blinds the singer at a local nightclub (Sally Yeh) with the flash of his gun after a job goes wrong. Jeff now feels in debt to the woman and begins saving up for a cornea transplant so that she may see again. He gets close to the price and takes one last job from his good friend in the Triad, but the job turns out to be hot, and he kills a protected man and is chased by the cops. If that isn’t bad enough, he then finds that the Triad is trying to set him up as well, so as to totally remove themselves from any involvement. Jeff is now a wanted man, both by the underworld and a dedicated cop (played by Danny Lee) who just wants to see justice served. Jeff doesn’t have the money to skip town nor help the nightclub singer, so the only thing left to do is let things reach their boiling point. The Killer didn’t turn out to be a financial success in his native Hong Kong, but turned out to be one of his most popular films overseas. He was now a famous name on the cinema scene, and rightfully so. As with most good things though, there always has to be something bad. After the critical success of The Killer, Woo’s ex-partner Tsui Hark began spreading rumors about him around town about him being disagreeable to work with. With the many people in Hong Kong who already had a distaste for him and his works, it wasn’t long before the studios no longer wanted to work with him. So Woo started his own production company in order to get his next film, Bullet in the Head, made.
Bullet in the Head is quoted as being Woo’s most personal film and deals with a group of three friends who leave Hong Kong and enter war-torn Vietnam in order to work with a local crime group. Things go poorly when their contraband is destroyed and are caught in between both the government and the rebels trying to destroy it. The film is one of his most beloved creations abroad, but had much of the same problems locally as his others did. The audiences didn’t care for the film, and the studios re-cut it, even going so far as to ask for an alternate and more action oriented conclusion. Woo was upset to see much of the problems that plagued The Killer come back into focus and was looking for something a little lighter to sink his teeth into. He found that in the film Once A Thief, a small action/comedy that is usually hailed alongside Just Heroes as one of his weakest films, but is in reality, a fairly fun little side film starring Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung. The film, while not a huge success, did well enough at the box-office that he was able to find funding for his biggest action film yet – and perhaps even the biggest action film ever, Hard Boiled.
As it turned out, Hard Boiled was the last film John Woo made in Hong Kong before moving on to the U.S. market, but if a viewer is looking for action, then Hard Boiled should always be the first stop. Chow Yun-Fat stars in a John Woo film once again in what is perhaps his most heroic and out-of-sight role. He plays jazz musician/cop Tequila who plays things by his own rules and is on the trail of an arms dealer named Johnny Wong (played with gusto by a thin Anthony Wong). Right beside Johnny Wong is undercover cop Tony (Tony Leung) who has infiltrated the gang through a deadly act of treachery to an old gang that he was part of. Tony and Tequilea both want Johnny for themselves, but will have to team together if they want to make any head-way. The film is John Woo’s farewell to Hong Kong. He takes every bit of breathtaking action choreography he ever filmed up until that point, and cranks it up ten notches. The conclusion to the film is one thirty minute fire-fight in a hospital that at no point is ever boring. The film was surprisingly not too popular when first released in Hong Kong, but over the years has become the linchpin for what an action film can be if given the perfect attention. Woo crafted a masterpiece of action cinema and set the standards for what could be done so much higher than anyone who had ever come before him. In the next few years Hong Kong was handed back over to China, and John Woo left the land he called home for so many years. He has since been working in the Hollywood system, producing films that some people accuse him of being a ‘sellout’ for, but as I sit here recounting the numerous hours of excellent cinema he gave to the world, I can’t help but feel a great respect for the man, and earnestly hope for his return to truly genre-bending cinema.