John Woo Capsule Reviews

John Woo Capsule Reviews

The Young Dragons (1973) — August 14, 2015

Kind of exactly what you’d expect from John Woo’s first film. A low-budget picture (Golden Harvest) with lofty aspirations, the influences are obvious: Peckinpah’s slo-motion, Chang Cheh’s doomed antiheroes, an unusually heightened (for a cheap genre film of the time) focus on sound and natural imagery that recalls Kurosawa, Leone ,and King Hu (wind rustling through tall grass, a setting sun that backlights two fighting men, shafts of light and shadow a world away from the flat studios of the Shaw Brothers).

The cast of unknowns and future That Guys run through the paces of a classic Chang scenario with a Woovian twist (Woo co-wrote the screenplay with Chang’s frequent collaborator Ni Kuang). A crook steals from worse crooks, then seeks out bloody self-sacrificial revenge when they kill his friend. The friend is a cop, and so in his first film we have the defining John Woo scene: cop and crook, after testing each other in a fight, decide they respect each other and discuss how similar they are, the fact that they have a shared code that distinguishes from the corrupt world they find themselves living in. The action is fast and athletically messy, grimier than Chang’s films (with their stately choreography by Lau Kar-leung and Tong Kai). An early glimpse of the direction Hong Kong action would take in the next decade, the stunt team includes Jackie Chan (credited as action director), Corey Yuen, Mars, Hsu Hsia, and Yuen Bun. There’s even a small role for Woo’s future boss at Cinema City, comedian Dean Shek.

The Dragon Tamers (1975) — August 18, 2015

John Woo’s second film, shot on location in Korea, has a lot of great fight scenes (like his first film, Jackie Chan served as the assistant action director). In every other respect it’s pretty terrible. The barest outline of a plot ripped off from Fist of Fury by way of Hapkido, characters that come and go seemingly at random, lip service to a moral (about fighting without hatred), and, every fifteen minutes or so, a mass girl fight calculated to expose a few breasts and exploit a little violence against women. But the fight scenes among the men are really well done, expertly shot and edited, the variations in the performers styles clearly evident in their movements (especially the difference between Korean and Chinese boxing). But there are none of the signature Woo moments that his first film demonstrated. If that film was the movie of a young director bursting with ideas, already by his second film he finds himself constrained within studio genre film expectations.

Also, imdb claims Sammo Hung is in this. I am almost certain they are wrong.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979) — August 22, 2015

When John Woo made this in 1979, the swordplay film was considered passé, old-fashioned. It didn’t do very well at the box office and Woo was stuck making increasingly soulless comedies for the next several years. When he made it again in 1986, it was with guns instead of swords and A Better Tomorrow was a massive hit, a trendsetter that eventually sent Woo to Hollywood and made him a worldwide household name. The lesson of course is that genres are dumb.

Laughing Times (1980) — August 15, 2015

In which Dean Shek as Charlie Chaplin farts on a chicken.

It’s actually pretty fun, with the desperate reality of life in Hong Kong’s slums underlying it all, but if this was the kind of film John Woo was reduced to making in the early 80s, it’s no wonder he took to drink. There isn’t even a little bit of him in it.

The Killer (1989) — February 1, 2018

Every time I watch The Killer, I’m overwhelmed. Words are so inadequate. It’s the purest melodrama there ever has been.

A world so intoxicatingly visual, where the ultimate tragedy is the loss of one’s eyesight.

A movie so big and bold even the opening credits are huge.

The plotting is denser, with more forward momentum than A Better Tomorrow, while retaining the repetition of flashbacks and theme song. Where Hard-Boiled is all-propulsive, The Killer is caught in-between, forward and back, every moment haunted by past failure and looking ahead only to self-destruction.

The first time I saw this, almost twenty years ago now (I think it was the first Woo I’d seen, though that might have been A Better Tomorrow) there was a point when I had to stop the videotape, rewind and rewatch several times, I was so blown away. It’s when Danny Lee is in Chow Yun-fat’s apartment after a shootout. He’s sitting in Chow’s chair, the camera movements the same as ones we saw only moments before, when Chow was sitting there. To emphasize the doubling, Woo cuts between the present and the recent past. When a cop appears in the doorway, Lee slides back in his chair, just as Chow did when an enemy approached, miming shooting. Then Woo repeats the sequence of Chow sliding and actually shooting. Past and present, Chow and Lee, collapsed into one kinetic whole, always moving but never going anywhere.

Woo doesn’t critique the wuxia codes of honor that his heroes live by, he laments their disappearance. Everyone from Chang Cheh to Johnnie To found contradictions in them, tensions between duty to one’s master and one’s friends, but not Woo. The code is a vital necessary thing being abandoned nonetheless by a heedless rush into modernity.

I don’t know if that makes Woo a conservative filmmaker though, because it’s not like his idealistic vision of honor ever really existed. His heroes just keep trying and failing to remake their worlds. They live and die by a code the rest of us haven’t caught up to yet.

Just Heroes (1989) — August 16, 2015

With Chang Cheh on the edge of late in life bankruptcy, a bunch of his friends and admirers got together and threw this film together as a benefit fundraiser. As fun as it is to see Chang’s great stars David Chiang, Chen Kuan-tai, and Ti Lung mixed up in a Triad movie with younger up-and-comers like Danny Lee and Stephen Chow, the whole thing feels like it was rushed into production only half-fleshed out. Chang's former assistant directors John Woo and Wu Ma share directing credits, with Tsui Hark producing, and it’s hard to say who was responsible for what. The scenario might have made sense after another couple of drafts, but as is nothing flows together and the central mystery of the film is both blindingly obvious and tonally incoherent.

Bullet in the Head (1990) — February 27, 2013

John Woo does The Deer Hunter, with Tony Leung as DeNiro, Jacky Cheung as Walken, and Simon Yam as Rambo. I bet the three hour version was a masterpiece.

Added August 20, 2015:
This is so clearly better than The Deer Hunter, I’m confused as to why it too didn’t win a bunch of Oscars. I mean, Simon Yam wasn’t even nominated even though he steals every scene, the coolest cat in a war movie since young Gary Cooper threw Wings totally out of whack.

Hard-Boiled (1992) — February 2, 2018

In The Iliad, most likely a byproduct of its transmission through song rather than writing, every major character or location has a small set of stock phrases that goes along with them, which the bard could insert whenever necessary to make the meter of the line they were reciting work out properly. These repeat, by necessity, throughout the poem, creating an odd kind of rhythm, less a narrative than a mantra, amplifying the archetypal nature of the heroes with incantation.

There are also more than two hundred deaths in The Iliad, but each one of them is unique.

Hard Target (1993) — April 4, 2013

Not a lot of John Woo in this movie, other than some parts of the final action sequence that mainly serve to remind of how great Hard-Boiled (made the previous year) was and of course the ever-present and otherwise inexplicable slow-motion doves flying. Mostly it seems to me like Woo’s trying his best to make a Hollywood film, rather than using Hollywood’s resources to make a John Woo film.

I do see the Buster Keaton comparison with Van Damme, he really does have a great stone face. But Woo doesn’t give him all that much to do as a physical actor, and humor has never been one of Woo’s strengths. The scene with the snake is a highlight though. And Lance Henriksen is great as Action Movie Villain. A role he was born to play.

Added August 9, 2015:
More to like the second time around, but it’s haunted by the better movie it should have been. Still a nice, lean chase film. Impressive that for John Woo’s American debut JCVD volunteered to have worse hair than Sammo Hung ever imagined possible.

Broken Arrow (1996) — August 7, 2015

This might be the deepest ensemble of talent John Woo ever worked with, the cast is simply stacked with great 90s character actors (Delroy Lindo! Kurtwood Smith! Frank Whaley!) and he’s working with a screenplay by Graham Yost, who wrote Speed and would go on to run Justified 15 years later. But Samantha Mathis is the real star here, playing what is probably the strongest female character of Woo’s career, her easy naturalism counterbalancing Travolta’s exuberant hamminess, with Christian Slater as the zero in the middle.

It’s missing something though. The editing in the action set pieces feels off, not necessarily too fast, but lacking the musicality of the Hong Kong films. (There’s also an exposition scene before the final battle that looks very clearly to have simply been chopped in half for reasons of running time.) There’s something going on under the surface, ideas of luck and fate and planning and improvisation that might come into sharper relief when compared to Woo’s other work, but I suspect that material is better suited to a study of Yost’s career. Still, there’s much to admire here in a major Hollywood product that ditches all conventional notions of backstory and motivation and gets right to the chase.

Face/Off (1997) — August 17, 2015

Face/Off is two hours and nineteen minutes long.

Was thinking this might be the first action film of the 21st century. But no, it’s the last action film of the 1990s.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) — April 2, 2014

I’m not exactly sure why I disliked this so much 13 years ago, but I suspect it had to do with failure to meet expectations. “The first half of the film isn’t anything like Hard-Boiled therefore this movie sucks.” That kind of silliness.

Anyway, the first half of the film isn’t anything like Hard-Boiled, instead it’s a mishmash of Hitchcock (To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, Notorious) with Thandie Newton dominating the screen. It loses something in the second half when, after committing the most heroic act in the film, Newton disappears in favor of non-stop Woovian action sequences.

This is perhaps the least verbal Tom Cruise performance I’ve seen. His Ethan Hunt here is stripped of pretty much all of the star’s charm and baggage, leaving a pure instrument of violence. The first film gave him a team to avenge, the third a wife to rescue. Here he’s a man doing his job, with a slight nod to psychology borrowed from Hitchcock, referenced but not emphasized.

Woo further explores his Scooby-Doo fantasies with some nifty face mask pulling (three times in the film, in the beginning, middle, and end), and of course the hilarious intrusion of a flock of seagulls into a climactic action sequence. Woo at his best is always uncomfortably close to self-parody, and so is always an easy mark for those who don’t want to take him seriously. But the final scenes here, as Cruise and Newton are wordlessly reunited, are among his most poignant.

Windtalkers (2002) — August 19, 2015

Without a doubt John Woo’s best American film, and one of the better war movies of the century so far. Woo should be better recognized as a director of war movies, he’s made more of them than ‘heroic bloodshed’ films at least. The stunt-work is some of the best I’ve ever seen in the genre (funny how everyone takes their chance to leap and roll because they’re working for Woo), gruesome, but so fast.

Between his performance here and in Flags of Our Fathers, it’s evident that the only reason Adam Beach never became a star is the persistent racism of Hollywood casting policies.

I can only assume the film failed because it was simply too dark: a war film that questions the moral righteousness of military leadership (and even the purpose of the war itself, no coincidence that the phrase Cage uses to justify his actions was the same one used by the other side in WWII—he’s just “following orders”) and lingers on the disastrous effects being a soldier can have on a person’s psyche, right as the US was engaged in one war and was ramping up to start another.

Paycheck (2003) — August 18, 2015

Have no idea why this is so disliked. It’s a perfectly fine cheap riff on Minority Report (another Philip K. Dick adaptation that was released a year and a half earlier). The genre is an odd fit for John Woo (he looks backward, not forward, and thus is not a natural for sci-fi), but he adds a privileged moment here or there and the car chase has a tangible sense of speed. Ben Affleck makes a terrific empty suit and watching him figure out his bag of tricks is a lot of fun. Paul Giamatti comes and goes too easily, the city is clearly Vancouver and not Seattle, and I have no idea what’s going on with Uma Thurman, but there’s nothing really wrong with this.

OK, the dove was silly, but at this point you’re expecting it, like Hitchcock’s cameo.

I assume the critical animosity is a result of a too-tempting-for-hacks title and the idiotic belief that good-looking men don’t understand computers (see also Blackhat).

Reign of Assassins (2010) — August 12, 2015

John Woo helped produce and by all accounts earned a co-director credit just by hanging around the set everyday and giving advice to director Su Chao-pin here and there. Since his return to Hong Kong, Woo has been involved in three major films (this one, Red Cliff, and The Crossing), none of which really fit with his previous Hong Kong work. All are period films done in a traditional generic form. Reign of Assassins is a romantic wuxia film in the style of someone who is well familiar with Chor Yuen’s late 70s collaborations with writer Gu Long (like The Sentimental Swordsman or The Magic Blade). Michelle Yeoh is a killer who steals a MacGuffin from her group of assassins and goes into hiding. Years later she falls in love and is tracked down by her former fellows. Basically Kill Bill, except her husband has some secrets of his own.

Yeoh is terrific of course, and the action (by Stephen Tung Wai — he played the informant in Hard-Boiled and has choreographed a lot of recent wuxia films, from Bodyguards and Assassins to the Painted Skin series) is solid in that 21st century computer-enhanced style that defines contemporary wuxia. It’s fast and elegant and at times quite lovely. The central romance is lacking, Korean actor Jung Woo-sung (who also starred in the Korean remake of Woo’s The Killer) is fine, but he doesn’t have much chemistry with Yeoh. The villainous pair of Wang Xueqi and his young disciple Barbie Hsu are more electric on-screen. Su glosses over that with music and montage, but while that worked for Woo in The Killer and A Better Tomorrow, it feels hollow here, maybe simply because the music isn’t as good.

Manhunt (2017) — February 14, 2018

After a decade in which all he put out were two two-part epics, one of which is great (Red Cliff) the other of which is half-great (The Crossing), it’s nice to see John Woo relax back into the kind of goofy genre fare that has always been his comfort zone. The plot is too complicated by half, with Zhang Hanyu framed by a pharmaceutical research company for murder because he wants to quit being their lawyer, or something, with a dogged cop played by Fukuyama Masaharu on his trail along with a variety of assassins. But the two leads are solid (Zhang you recall from Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain and Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, and Fukuyama from the Hirokazu Koreeda movies Like Father, Like Son and The Third Murder) and they’re surrounded by all kinds of women: an earnest heartbroken potential love interest and a callow go-getter on the good side, and assassins of both the cold-blooded and heart-of-gold variety on the less good side (and wow is it both weird and a lot of fun to see John’s daughter Angeles Woo flying around as the more ruthless killer. She had a small part in The Crossing, but she almost steals the movie here). There’s even a small part for Kurata Yasuaki , enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately with key roles as well in Gordon Chan’s God of War and Chapman To’s The Empty Hands. The action is exciting, with some truly exceptional moments, the rest of it is tolerable. In the battle of great 80s Hong Kong auteurs taking on corruption in the 21st century medical-industrial complex, Woo is an easy winner over Ringo Lam.