The Films of John Woo and the Art of Heroic Bloodshed

A Retrospective by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997, 1998

John Woo was born in 1946 in Mainland China, the son of Christian parents. At the age of five, his family moved to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution, where they struggled for a number of years, having to live in the streets for a short period of time. In those days, his mother would take him to the theater to watch Western cinema, which inspired the young John Woo to be a film-maker. After leaving high school, he hooked up a group of students who shared a passion for film. They would screen European arthouse films, discuss what they had seen, and eventually, they began to make their own films.

In 1969, Woo got his first big break as a script supervisor in Cathay Studios. He followed that up in 1971 with a move up to assistant director in the famous Shaw Studios, where he was mentored by Chang Cheh, who taught him the art of filming action and the importance of editing. His directorial debut came in 1973 with "The Young Dragons", a kung-fu actioner that featured two elements of what would later become the John Woo style: the dynamic fluid camera work and the elaborately choreographed action sequences (choreographed by the future Jackie Chan). On the strength of this first effort, Woo moved onto Golden Harvest where he started off with martial arts films and a filmed Chinese opera, but then became a comedy director with the success of "The Pilferer's Progress", a comedy that starred Hong Kong comedian Ricky Hui.

However, by the mid-1980s, Woo was running out of steam. His latest films were duds in the box office and it looked as though he was a has-been. It was at this time that he sought funding for a pet project, "A Better Tomorrow", which caught the attention of producer/director Tsui Hark (who came to Hollywood earlier this year for "Double Team").

"A Better Tomorrow" was a paradigm shift for Hong Kong cinema. Before 1986, Hong Kong cinema was firmly rooted in two genres: the martial arts film and the comedy. Gunplay was not terribly popular because audiences had considered it boring, compared to fancy kung-fu moves or graceful swordplay of the wu shu epics. What moviegoers needed was a new way to present gunplay-- to show it as a skill that could be honed, integrating the acrobatics and grace of the traditional martial arts. And that's exactly what John Woo did. Using all of the visual techniques available to him (tracking shots, dolly-ins, slo-mo), Woo created beautifully surrealistic action sequences that were a 'guilty pleasure' to watch. There is also intimacy found in the gunplay-- typically, his protagonists and antagonists will have a profound understanding of one another and will meet face-to-face, in a tense Chinese standoff where they each point their weapons at one another and trade words.

Woo also integrated the themes of loyalty and honor into his films, inspired by his fascination with the films of Ken Takakura and Jean-Pierre Melville. Woo created characters that were tragic heroes, sensitive to the consequences of their actions and caught in a state of moral contradiction that had no easy solution. On one hand, these characters were bound by what the Japanese call giri, or duty and obligation. However, their duty and obligations often ran contradictory to their ninjo, their feelings or unsubconcious response, be it love, revenge, or friendship. These characters find the distinction between right and wrong blurred, creating both uneasy alliances and conflict with those around them.

In addition to the above, the John Woo film is typified by many of the following aspects: given his Christian upbringing, it is not surprising to find the widespread use of Christian symbolism in his films, with scenes being crafted in locations with religious significance or icons being prominently displayed. Woo also likes to use mirrors in his action sequences-- reflective surfaces will warn the protagonist of impending danger or used against hidden attackers. Finally, the use of juxtaposition figures prominently in his films. Woo will cut between two scenes, sometimes similar and sometimes disparate, to make a comment on the situation. For example, in "Hard Boiled", as police detective Tequila wanders the bookstacks of a library in search of a murder weapon, Woo juxtaposes it with the murderer planning the murder, walking down the exact same bookstacks, as a method of illustrating the 'thinking like a criminal' thought process of Tequila and the similarities of the motivations between the two characters.

"A Better Tomorrow" combined both these elements of narrative, the visceral and the thematic, and a new era of Hong Kong cinema was born, the era of Heroic Bloodshed. Following ABT's release in Hong Kong in 1986, a slew of copycat films came out, some of which came close, but never exceeded the intensity of Woo's work. The films of the Heroic Bloodshed era typically had the same plot that was built around ABT: an innocent is drawn in willingly or not so willingly into the underworld, under the watchful eye of a 'big brother', the hero is betrayed, the hero takes revenge and often dies a tragic death at the end.

Woo went on to make several more films after gaining international recognition with ABT, and here they are in chronological order:


A Better Tomorrow (1986)

Yingxiong Bense (literally, Three Colors of a Hero)

In 1986, this film garnered international attention for John Woo and redefined Hong Kong cinema, initiating what would later be termed the 'Heroic Bloodshed' era of Hong Kong action cinema. This movie, though not as slickly produced as some Western films, stands head-above-shoulders of other comparable Hong Kong action-fare and is an instant classic.

Believe me Ho... you'll have to give it up. Your brother doesn't know what you do. And how you go hold of the money. Remember when you were kids, and you always used to play? Kit always lost. You always played cops and robbers. Don't play the game in real-life. It's not worth it.

"A Better Tomorrow" follows the story of Ho (Ti Lung), a member of the counterfeiting division of a crime syndicate, and his best friend and partner, Mark (Chow Yun Fat). His brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), is graduating from police academy, and his father wants him to quit the syndicate so that he and Kit do not play "cops and robbers in real life". An assignment comes up in Taiwan and Ho vows that it is his last job. At a night club, in a classic speech, Mark tells an up-and-coming member, Shing (Waise Lee), of the syndicate all about what it takes to be in the syndicate (the story is actually based on a real incident that happened to Chow Yun Fat and his director friend Ringo Lam in Indonesia). Ho goes over with Shing to Taiwan and they are betrayed by a rival triad member. During a shoot-out, Ho is injured. He decides to surrender to the approaching police, and tells Shing to escape. Shing escapes unwillingly and Ho is captured.

Have you had a gun put to your head? Nah. It happened to us twelve years ago. Remember? It was somewhere outside Jakarta. This guy took us to this night club. I said something he didn't like and had a gun stuck to my head. 'Drink that bottle of whiskey!' I couldn't, but I had no choice. What do you know... Ho drank it for me. That wasn't the end of it. As soon as he finished, I had more guns stuck to my head. They wanted me to drink my piss! You didn't help me out that time. You see... that's how you're gonna learn. That's how we got through our first job.
Forget about it.
I can't. I cried... I never cried before. I swore, there and then, that I'd never let anyone put a gun to my head again.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, a member of the rival triad attempts to kidnap Ho's father, but is thwarted by Kit. Unfortunately, during the struggle, Ho's father is killed. The next day, news of Ho's arrest reaches both Kit and Mark. Mark travels to Taiwan and in a stunning slo-mo sequence, Mark discreetly hides handguns in flowerpots lining a corridor in a restaurant as he gropes one of the hostesses of the establishment. Mark barges in uninvited on a private party, and assassinates the triad member who betrayed Ho. However, as Mark leaves the scene, he is crippled when a bullet becomes lodged in his leg.

You better tell your buddies that three years might have come and gone... but I'll still be watching you. It's not easy for someone to... change.

Three years later, Ho is released from jail and returns to Hong Kong. There, he tries to go straight, by taking a job as a taxi driver from Ken (Tsang Kong), but he has many obstacles to overcome. A Taiwanese police detective (John Woo, the director himself) is convinced that Ho is still part of the syndicate, and is keeping close tabs on him. Kit hates him as a result of the death of their father and the denial of a promotion because of Ho's ties to the syndicate. Mark is now a janitor for the syndicate because of his crippled state and yearns for the days of glory with Ho. And Shing, with Mark having stepped aside and Ho's absence, is now the new head of the syndicate and he wants Ho to run the counterfeit division and use Kit to spy on the police.

I know I've got a lot to make up to you. Just give me one last chance. Just one more.
You want a chance?! I'm the guy that needs a chance around her! It's because of you I have no promotion! I got no chance! You better look out... I'll be watching you!

John Woo's protagonists are generally criminals with a sense of decency and honor in conflict with themselves, adding complexity to the otherwise typical cardboard-cutout characters of Hong Kong action films. The dilemma that Ho must reconcile between his obligations and loyalties to both Kit and Mark is the thematic core that provides much of the emotional drive of this film. On one side, there is the loyalty and sacrifices of his friend, who needs his help. On the other, there is the need to reconcile with his brother. And further complicating matters, Shing wants both Mark and Kit dead. But whatever action Ho takes, he risks alienating either Mark or Kit.

If you want to help Kit... you've got to leave Hong Kong.

Chow Yun Fat's performance as Mark is unforgettable. Prior to ABT, he was not considered a bankable film star, which some theater owners had expressed to Woo and producer Tsui Hark. Chow Yun Fat was a popular television star, having played lead roles in several popular soap operas, but his previous attempts in becoming a film star had fizzled. However, following the release of ABT, Chow Yun Fat had become the role model for young Hong Kong men, who could be seen hanging around the colony dressed in the long black coats and sporting the Alain Delon brand sunglasses that Mark wore in ABT (in fact, Alain Delon sent a thank-you letter to Chow Yun Fat for helping his brand of sunglasses to sell out within a week of the release of ABT). The fashion influences were not merely restricted to the colony-- after seeing ABT, future director Quentin Tarantino rushed out to buy a coat to emulate his new-found role model. Ti Lung's pained expressions, along with the close-up-intensive camera work of Woo, convey the difficult choices that Ho faces better than any dialogue ever could. Being a faded wu shu star, those theater owners who were already concerned about Chow Yun Fat in a lead role were not reassured by this bit of casting. Leslie Cheung, a pop singer with heart-throb appeal, was the only sure thing in the eyes of the theater owners (he later went on to appear in many other memorable Hong Kong films, such as "A Chinese Ghost Story", "The Bride with White Hair", and "Days of Being Wild"). But as ABT broke all box office records in the summer of 1986, those concerns became moot.

You're a god if you control your destiny.
Only you never know how things will turn out.

The most obvious characteristics of any John Woo movie include excessive gunplay, slow-motion, and unbelievable action sequences and ABT is replete with all three. The trademark use of two semi-automatic handguns is first seen here, in the restaurant assassination scene, which has now filtered its way into Western action cinema, especially in the films of Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs"), Robert Rodriguez ("Desperado"), Roger Avary ("Killing Zoe") and the Jerry Bruckheimer and late Don Simpson productions ("The Rock", "Con Air").

What if I don't go along with the deal?
Look, it's only because of you that I keep that cripple on. And your brother. He's getting too close. If he wasn't your brother, he'd be floating in the harbor already.
One's my friend and the other's my brother. If I do this, I won't be able to look them in the face again. Insult me... but don't insult Mark!

Some juxtaposition, or contrasting of dissimilar ideas, is also seen in ABT. During the prison sequence, the daily drills of prison life for Ho are put side-to-side with the rigors of police academy for Kit. And the departure of Mark in the motorboat, abandoning Ho to an unknown fate, is contrasted with the arrival of Kit, who is determined to arrest his brother.

Take a look at what you've become now. You were really somebody in the syndicate. And you become so honest... so scared to go outside? Is that you? You want that? Well I don't.

One interesting line, uttered by Mark, is found near the end of ABT, as Mark and Ho are on a mountainside overlooking the neon-lit cityscape of the Hong Kong:

I never realized Hong Kong looked so good at night. Like most most things, it won't last. That's for sure.

Not only is it an interesting comment on the future of Hong Kong, eleven years before the handover to Mainland China in 1997, but it is also representative of the journey that Mark and Ho undertake. At the start of ABT, they are dressed in suits, which represent not only capitalism, but also corruption. They are soon stripped of their suits, and are persona non grata in the syndicate. Ho is the first to realize the hollow pursuit of capitalism and its moral consequences and attempts to convince Mark. However, Mark is still of the mind-set of possessions being the only measure of a person's value, and wishes for the halcyon days of being in the syndicate. During the final shoot-out, Ho tells Mark to escape with a suitcase full of money, while Ho faces up to the repercussions of his past by surrendering to the police. Mark zooms off in a motorboat, but soon he is drawn back by his loyalty to Ho, which is worth to him considerably more than the suitcase of money in his possession. He returns, and ends up giving his life so that Ho can reconcile with Kit.

This is probably one of the most emotionally-intense films that John Woo has ever done. With the exception of "The Killer", none of his other films have ever had a dilemma-ridden character like Ho. In addition to "The Killer", this is probably the finest showcase of both John Woo's skills as a writer and a director. It is relatively easy to find on video, since it was released in North America. Unfortunately, instead of opting for subtitling, atrocious dubbing is found on the North American release. Not only does the dubbing fail to capture the emotional resonance of the dialogue in some key scenes, it also changes the context of some conversations. For example, there is a funny scene where Mark and Ho are selling their counterfeit currency to some Western dealers. Mark, who cannot speak English, merely responds "Of course" to everything that is asked of him. Later on, Ho congratulates Mark for handling the dealers so well, to which Mark replies, "But of course". Furthermore, some of the background music has changed in some of the scenes, which is not all bad. The restaurant assassination scene, instead of the twangy Taiwanese pop music in the Chinese print, now has a somber but steady synthesizer piece that matches the action a lot better.


Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

Yingxiong Wu Lei (literally, The Sunset Warrior)

A further refinement of John Woo's portrayal of gunplay with this "Dirty Dozen"-style actioner which did not star his leading man, Chow Yun Fat, was about Chinese commandos sent to smash a Thailand drug ring who end up taking the drug kingpin as a hostage and escaping through the jungle with the kingpin's troops on their tail. Very hard to find on video or laserdisc.


A Better Tomorrow II (1987)

Yingxiong Bense II (literally, Three Colors of a Hero II)

A Better Tomorrow II

John Woo has said that he doesn't like doing sequels. However, he broke this rule to help out his friend, comedian Dean Shek (he played a comedic role in Jackie Chan's "Drunken Master"), who was having money troubles at the time.

The story picks up a year after the first film. Kit (Leslie Cheung) is an inspector and doing undercover work to investigate a shipping company owned by Lung (Shek). Meanwhile, Ho (Ti Lung) is in jail, but is given a chance to commute his sentence by working undercover to expose the illegal activities of his former mentor-- Lung. At first, Ho refuses, but when he realizes that his hot-headed younger brother is attempting to do the same thing, he agrees in an effort to ensure that the now-pregnant Jackie won't be left alone with a child.

Meanwhile, an aggressive gang of counterfeiters want to use Lung's shipyard for their illegal operations. Lung refuses, and as a result, the gang frames Lung for killing one of his associates. Ho spirits Lung to New York to protect him. Unfortunately, Lung's daughter is killed by the counterfeiters, and during an attempt on his life, Lung's priest brother is fatally shot. These two events drive Lung into madness, and he spends too long foaming at the mouth and acting mad.

What's wrong? You don't like my rice?

Luckily, Mark's twin brother, Ken (talk about deus ex machina!), arrives and helps Lung recover his sanity, while outrunning mob hitmen sent after them. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, both Ho and Kit have infiltrated the mob. However, the new mob boss believes Kit is an undercover cop, and asks his new right-hand man, Ho, to kill the rat. This is the point where the film really begins to shine and break free of its shaky premise, with so many memorable scenes. Kit whispers to his brother to shoot him, 'to make it look good'. Ken fights off scores of mob hitmen in a hotel, with some inventive gunplay that served as a precursor to the far-out sequences in "Hard Boiled". Kit being shot (again) by an assassin's bullet is juxtaposed with his wife giving birth to their daughter. While being rushed to the hospital, Kit asks Ken to stop the car by a telephone booth, where he calls up his wife and gives his newborn daughter a name before dying in Ken's arms. And the final shoot-out, with the four protagonists closing in on the mob hideout dressed in black suits, white shirts, and thin ties (the inspiration for the fashion statement that Quentin Tarantino created in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction"), is perhaps one of the bloodiest gun battles found in any film-- it literally has all the walls in the mob's hideout caked with blood and bodies piled high on the floor by the end. Ti Lung even gets back to his wu shu days with a brief sword fight!

This is another hard one to find. I've only seen it on video cassette in Hong Kong, and the only laserdisc version I've found was subtitled in Japanese. But if you can find it, even if there is not English translation, it is worth it. Despite the vacuous premise, there is further refinement of John Woo's style and some truly moving moments in the second half that make this a must-see.

The Killer (1989)

Diexue Shuang Xiong (literally, A Pair of Blood Spattering Heroes)

The Killer

The only one who really knows me turns out to be a cop.
You could always give yourself up.
No, I made a promise. I keep my word.
Sometimes I really envy you... your freedom. It's something I don't have. I believe in justice, but nobody trusts me.
I have the same problem... you're an unusual cop.
You're an unusual killer.

Released in 1989, The Killer is hands-down the best John Woo film ever. It garnered the most international attention for Woo and a couple of Hollywood versions were proposed, one with Richard Gere, and another with Keanu Reeves (!), but both are on the back-burner. This film neatly combines all of the elements of a John Woo film into a well-paced action feature.

What are you doing?
Looking at this scarf.
It's got my bloodstains on it. I haven't been able to clean it. The man who shot me wrapped it over my eyes. I'll never forget that.

Jeffrey Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) is a modern day Christ figure (Jeffrey Chow-- J.C.-- Jesus Christ), reluctantly facing a reluctant destiny which he knows is necessary for the greater good. The action begins in a church where Jeffrey accepts a hatchet job from his best friend, a fellow hitman named Sidney (Chu Kong). Jeffrey marches calmly into a crowded night club, and as he passes by Jenny (Vancouver-born pop singer Sally Yeh), a night club singer, they share a quick silent glance, an homage to a famous scene in one of Woo's favorite films, "Le Samourai" by Jean-Pierre Melville. Jeffrey continues to the back of the restaurant where he interrupts a dinner party and shoots his target. During his escape, his target's henchmen attack and during the shoot-out, Jeffrey accidentally blinds the nightclub singer.

They're clean guns. No serial numbers. Untraceable. Explosive head bullets... your favorite kind.
Easy to pick up... hard to put down.

He feels great remorse over what he has inadvertently done, and accepts one last job to help pay for Jenny's cornea transplant to restore her sight. Jeffrey carries out his assignment in the middle of a dragon boat festival and is successful. However, a police detective, Eagle Lee (Danny Lee), sees him, and begins pursuit. The chase leads to an island where there is a car waiting for Jeffrey. However, there is also an ambush set by Jeffrey's employers. In the firefight, a young girl playing on the beach is gunned down. Jeffrey grabs her and drives her to the nearest hospital, with Eagle in pursuit.

He looks determined... without being ruthless. He's different from other murderers. He doesn't look like a killer. He comes across so calm... acts like he has a dream... eyes filled with passion.

At the hospital, he keeps the two officers at gunpoint and leaves after he sees that the young girl has been revived. At that point, Eagle realizes that Jeffrey is not a typical killer, but in fact a killer with a conscience. Jeffrey returns home and demands the payment from Sidney, who gave him the job. Unfortunately, Sidney has been ordered to kill Jeffrey, because he was spotted by the police.

He risked his life to save the little girl. And if he hurt the singer by accident... he's probably contacted her.

So the conflicts between loyalty and duty, between friendship and honor, between right and wrong are all set up, culminating in a fifteen minute shoot-out in a church at the end of the movie. Like Ho of "A Better Tomorrow", Jeffrey is a tortured individual having to carry out a duty which he can no longer morally justify to himself to fulfill a personal obligation. Which is a universal dilemma that many of us face-- do you keep working at the same job that you hate, surpressing your own dreams and desires, just to pay the rent and put food on the table? That is the circumstance Jeffrey finds himself in, and he must succeed, even if it means selling his soul. The difficulties of the choices that Jeffrey must make are illustrated by the tight close-ups on his facial expressions, carrying on the Woo tradition. Jeffrey is seen to grimace at the thought of the lives he has irreparably affected, conveying the troubling emotions that he feels.

Don't talk crap! I won't pay him even if you beg.
Let me keep my word and pay him... then I'll bring him to you. Mr. Weng, if it pleases you, I will beg.
Go to hell! I should kick the shit out of you! What is he? He's just a dog! He doesn't deserve your sympathy. Why are you doing it?
He's my best friend.

This film, in addition to the 'beautiful' semi-automatic violence, has so many beautifully-directed scenes. Juxtaposition is illustrated by having Jeffrey get his assignments in a church, where the final shoot-out is also held. And in a scene where Eagle and Jeffrey are talking about Sidney's loyalty and how Jeffrey's life has turned out, there are intercut scenes of Sidney being beaten by Jeffrey's employers as he attempts to get Jeffrey's money. To illustrate the identical thought-processes between cop and criminal, Woo counterpoints a shot of Eagle sitting in a chair and a previous shot of Jeffrey sitting in the same chair a few hours prior.

If you're my friend, kill me now! I hate seeing you demean yourself by begging!
I risked my life trying to get you your money! I could have just killed you. I didn't have to beg Weng for your money! I'm not completely without honor, am I?
Our world is changing so fast... it never used to be like this. Maybe we're too nostalgic.
Nostalgia is one of our saving graces. At least when I die, I'll be remembered by a friend.

The coolest artsy scene occurs during the final shoot-out. A statue of the Virgin Mary is shot, and all the protagonists react to it while there are extensive close-ups of their facial expressions. In the background, heavy string orchestration plays in the background, serving as counterpoint to the on-screen mayhem.

We're alike in one way: we both use guns for a living. But our motivations are different, right?

And finally, there is the comedic scene when Eagle tries to arrest Jeffrey at the nearly-blind Jenny's apartment. As they tensely point their guns at each other, they both convince Jenny that they are old friends to avoid alarming her. Naturally, she invites them both in for tea and the fun really begins.

Promise me one thing. If I don't make it and my eyes are undamaged, take me to a hospital and have them give my corneas to Jenny. If that's impossible, send her abroad for surgery with my money.
Don't think like that.
It's the first decent thing I've ever done. Will you help me?

"The Killer" is available in North America in several versions. The videocassette version comes in both badly-dubbed and excellently-subtitled (with nice bold yellow subtitles that are easily read on any television). The laserdisc is also available in two versions from the Criterion Collection. The original release has the widescreen edition of "The Killer" with subtitles and director's commentary on the analog track. In addition, there is a cool supplemental disc with background information on Woo, a 'Bluffer's Guide to Hong Kong Cinema', deleted scenes from "The Killer", trailers of his other films, and even Woo's student art film! The latest edition is the same as the first release, only without the supplemental materials.

The 'Long Version'

At the recent Fant-Asia film festival, held in Toronto, lucky John Woo fans were fortunate enough to catch the screening of a very rare print of "The Killer". This original Taiwanese print of the film that clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, of which includes thirty minutes of footage excised from the subsequent Cantonese print, is a rarity, the only one in existence. Though it has been referred to as the 'director's cut' of this seminal John Woo film, the director actually considers the common edited-down version truer to his original vision.

The most notable differences between this 'long version' and the subsequent prints are:

One notable change in this longer version is the emphasis on the 'capitalism as corruption' subtext, which is also touched on in "A Better Tomorrow". The dialogue in this version of "The Killer" focuses more on the issue of 'money', eschewing the focus on loyalty and honor in subsequent versions. In this version, Weng's dialogue is more focused on Sidney's obligations having 'been paid well'. Furthermore, a greater contrast is put in place between Jeff's two friends, Eagle and Sidney. Sidney is more fixated on equating money with friendship, and as a result, dies for being unable to separate this post-modern perspective on the basis of relationships. On the other hand, Eagle relationship to Jeff is based on honor and friendship-- he cares not for Jeff's money (of course, he survives). Jeff, on the other hand, sees his money as his raison d'etre in terms of his relationship to Jenny, and of course, he dies.

However, despite being a more 'complete' cut of "The Killer", this long version is still missing a couple of key scenes. The first is a scene that mirrors Jenny's rescue by Jeff in the alley-- Eagle comes to Jenny's rescue after the nightclub closes as Jeff looks on from a rooftop. Second, the original ending was more upbeat with Eagle taking Jenny to Texas to have her cornea transplant operation. However, the ending that finally made the cut, a repeat of Jeff staring at a church while playing his harmonica, works better, as it shows that Jeff has indeed redeemed his sins, and has ascended to 'heaven'.

This rare print of "The Killer", while not as clean as the Cantonese version, is still worth a look for the extra footage, the alterations in the thematic elements of the story, and the loopy subtitles. It most likely will make a return visit to next year's Fant-Asia film festival, but until then, keep an eye out for its appearance at other Asian film festivals around North America.


Just Heroes (1990)

Yidan Qun Ying

This production was a fund-raiser for the sole purpose of allowing aging director Chang Cheh to retire. Woo was one of Chang's protégés, and along with the other three charges of Chang (Wu Ma and Danny Lee), they came up with this mediocre crime drama that dealt with a younger generation of gangsters dealing with the death of their revered 'Big Boss'. Like "Heroes Shed No Tears", this one did not star Woo's leading man, Chow Yun Fat. Instead, JH featured Stephen Chow, who would later become the Jim Carrey of Hong Kong comedy cinema. However, this film did have one bright moment-- a young gangster wannabe starts quoting Mark's lines from "A Better Tomorrow" and hides handguns in flowerpots in the living room of a rival crimelords house in preparation for a shoot-out.


Bullet in the Head (1990)

Diexue Jietou (literally, Blood Splattered Streets)

"Bullet in the Head" is John Woo does "The Deer Hunter"-- the closest thing to an epic that the director has ever done, and John Woo's personal favorite. Made in the year following the Tiannamen Square Massacre, this film deals with the strain that relationships undergo in times of strife, and the brutality of the war in Vietnam. It is a semi-autobiographical film, with many of the events in the travels of Ben, the main protagonist, a reflection of John Woo's rootless life in the Sixties.

BITH had three leads, Frank (Jackie Cheung), Vincent (Waise Lee), and Ben (Tony Leung). The story, which starts on a more upbeat mood than his other films, shows the lives of the three men, who are eking out an existence amid the civil strife in Hong Kong of the late sixties. When Ben gets married to his girlfriend Jane (Fennie Yuen), Frank borrows the money from a loan shark to pay for the banquet, but is attacked by a rival gang, led by Ringo, on his way to the reception. Frank manages to fight them off, but is injured. He manages to get to the wedding, but when Ben finds out what happens, they go together to confront Ringo and end up killing him.

The three friends go into hiding and decide to leave Hong Kong for the interim and hopefully make a fortune smuggling in Vietnam. Just before taking off, Ben says good-bye to Jane while an anti-government demonstration goes on in the background. He vows to make his fortune abroad and return to her, but Jane warns him that things are the same everywhere. In a stunning sequence, their poignant farewell is contrasted with a RHKP bomb squad officer attempting to defuse a booby-trap left by anti-government protesters. As the relationship between husband and wife shatters, the bomb explodes, maiming the police officer (I don't know what it means, but it sure looks impressive).

When they arrive in Vietnam, their possessions are burned during a Viet Cong suicide bombing. In the first of many horrific scenes, all suspects, including the three protagonists, are rounded up in a church schoolyard. One by one, they are questioned. Frank, Vincent, and Ben are beaten by the police when they don't confess to being part of the bombing, but fortunately, the real suspect is found, who is promptly executed with a bullet in the head, set against the backdrop of a statue of Jesus and Mary.

Without money, they go to work for Mr. Leong, a local crime boss. There, they meet up with a Eurasian hitman, Luke (Simon Yam) and Sally (Yolinda Yam), a former Hong Kong singer. The next day, Ben meets up with the singer at a bridge in Saigon where an anti-government demonstration is in progress. After watching the police beat the protesters and a lone protester standing defiantly in front of a tank, Ben realizes that as Jane told him before leaving Hong Kong, things are the same everywhere. He takes Sally to safety and learns that she was sold into prostitution by Mr. Leong. With the help of Luke, the three protagonists hatch a plan to steal some gold from Mr. Leong's safe and free Sally.

The plan is executed, and during their escape, the singer is shot in the back by Mr. Leong. Ben and Frank carry her to safety, while Vincent greedily carries a box of gold. As they travel through the Vietnamese countryside to escape their pursuers, the singer dies during an ambush. Meanwhile, Vincent becomes increasingly obsessed with the box of gold, and during a tense moment, he points a gun at his friends to protect it.

They are soon captured by the Viet Cong and taken to a prison camp. This is the most discomforting sequence in the entire film, if not in all of Woo's films. The Viet Cong decide to have some fun and force Frank to execute American P.O.W.s. Unable to shoot the soldiers in cold blood, Ben steps forward to take Frank's place. With hold of a gun, Ben manages to help Frank and Vincent escape, just as the US Army, with Luke leading them, attack the camp. However, Vincent is still obsessed with keeping the gold, and as he hides in a field with Frank, he fears that Frank's cries of pain will give away their position. Vincent puts his gun to Frank's head, and squeezes the trigger. Vincent then escapes, killing a whole village in order to steal a motorboat.

A year later, Ben finds a crippled Luke in Saigon, who takes him to see Frank, who has gone mad because of the bullet lodged in his brain. He now is a killer for hire to support his heroin addiction to control the constant pain. In a final plea for help, Frank asks Ben to kill him. Ben obliges.

Ben then returns to Hong Kong, and meets his wife and son. But before he can settle down, he finds Vincent, who is now the head of a large company. After a lengthy chase through the streets of Hong Kong, which is intercut with scenes from their bicycle races through the streets in their pre-Vietnam days, Ben finally kills Vincent.

It is a brutal and fatalistic film, dripping with pathos as the dreams and loyalties between the three friends is slowly destroyed by the events around them. Ben and Jackie are both sympathetic characters, that begin the film with an innocence of wide-eyed expectation, which slowly fades, only to be replaced by loss and regret. Tony Leung is no stranger to his restrained portrayal of Ben, but on the other hand, Jackie Cheung, who is a popular pop singer in Hong Kong, plays a role that becomes the antithesis of his squeaky-clean happy-go-lucky pop idol persona. Vincent's transformation is less convincing, almost forced, and the wooden acting by Waise Lee doesn't help matters.

And unlike "A Better Tomorrow" or "The Killer", the balance between the narrative and visceral aspects is not even, with it tilted heavily towards on-screen violence without the benefit of a strong emotional undercurrent to form a solid basis-- the emotional reaction evoked by BITH would be more from the graphic violence, instead of from the ordeals that the characters face.

The laserdisc that is available in Canada is an edited version, with obvious cuts that trim approximately twenty minutes of footage, some of which is very important to understand the themes at work in this film. If you can find the unedited laserdisc or the VHS tape, then watch that. It is by far, the more complete movie that is faithful to Woo's vision.


Once a Thief (1991)

Zongsheng Sihai (literally, Criss-cross Over Four Seas)

This film is proof that even John Woo can make a really bad movie. Yes, the master of action cinema from Hong Kong, John Woo, actually put his name on this piece of crap. This was intended to be an action-comedy, but this caper movie fails miserably in both aspects.

It is a jarring contrast to Woo's other films of the Heroic Bloodshed era, though it does have its foundation in logic. Before the advent of "A Better Tomorrow", Woo was considered the next 'King of Comedy' in Hong Kong film, having directed many successful comedies that employed many of the colony's well-known comedians, such as Ricky Hui. Furthermore, at this time, his previous efforts ("The Killer", "Bullet in the Head") had not done well due to the level of violence (paradoxically, those two films were received more warmly in international markets). And with this film being released in the Chinese New Year, it had to be light-hearted movie suitable for the whole family (just like how lots of family pictures come out in the summer and around Christmas).

Filmed in 1991, when every film-maker in Hong Kong was making movies in France for some inexplicable reason, it features Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung, and Cherie Cheung (she is actually a good actress if given the right material). They play Joe, Jim, and Cherie respectively, a trio of art thieves who were all raised by a con man, though they are not related to one another. In a keystone cops flashback, the three youngsters are befriended by a cop (Chu Kong) after having been caught stealing food. They are sent on a job to steal a painting but are double-crossed by their foster father. Following an impressive chase sequence, choreographed by French stuntcar driver Remy Julien), Joe's car crashes and it is assumed that he is dead.

Jim and Cherie have no choice but to assume he is dead and they board a plane back to Hong Kong. One year later, they begin an almost-incestuous relationship and Joe shows up in a wheelchair (a symbol of maturation?), having apparently survived the crash. To exact revenge on their foster father, the trio devise a plan to steal the painting back, however, their police officer father is on their tail.

Yes, it all sets up nicely like your typical John Woo movie, with your conflicts between friendship, loyalty, and duty... but it falls flat in execution. The dialogue is alright, but because Woo was trying to make a comedy, he makes the main characters merely caricatures that make fools out of themselves, as though they were in some "Police Academy" sequel. And the jokes are not even funny (even with the language barrier problem resolved). Another problem is the way it vacillates between comedy and action. One minute everyone is acting like an idiot going for cheap laughs, and the next minute someone has a bullet through their head. However, this kind of split-personality is apparent in many Chinese so-called-comedies (another good example of this is a James Bond spoof "From China with Love" which has Naked-Gun type comedy with blood-splattering ultraviolence).

And the worst aspect of this movie-- nobody grows in this movie. At the end, Chow leaps out of his wheelchair, apparently having faked his disability to keep his foster father off-guard (oh well, so much for the maturation symbolism) and begins acting like the idiot he was in the beginning of the movie (so what was the point?). Couple that with a comic-book shoot-out at the end featuring a magician armed with killer playing cards, you have the worst John Woo movie.

This was not released in North America (for good reason), but you can find it on laserdisc. It was also remade into a television movie by Alliance Productions for the Fox Network in 1996 as the pilot for a television series.


Hard Boiled (1992)

Lashou Shentan (literally, Ruthless Supercop)

Hard Boiled

Give the guy a gun and he's Superman. Give him two and he's god!

"Hard Boiled" was John Woo's farewell gift to Hong Kong before moving to the sunny shores of Hollywood. It has been hailed as John Woo's finest work, boasting some of the most heart-stopping footage of ultraviolent gunplay from the director and excellent production values. However, at the core of this action masterpiece is essentially a buddy-cop movie. It lacks the emotional resonance of "The Killer" or "A Better Tomorrow", but is still one of my favorites.

Made during a crime wave in Hong Kong, HB is Woo's message of hope to the colony which was caught between an escalation of illegal arm shipments from Mainland China by triads and the inevitable reunification in a few short years. Having been criticized of glorifying triads and gangland violence in his previous efforts, Woo sought to provide his audience with a law enforcement officer who would stand up to the rising crime and pre-reunification jitters (faith in the future of Hong Kong is a point made by the main character in the first few minutes of the film).

Inspector "Tequila" Yuen is Woo's hero, once again played by Chow Yun Fat. He is a cop who is relentless in his pursuit of justice. During a bust of an illegal arms deal in the Wyndham Teahouse (a dim sum restaurant where customers bring their caged birds to hang by their tables), everything goes wrong. A shoot-out between the dealing triads, the police, and a mysterious third man breaks out. Tequila leaps into action in this memorable sequence, two guns blazing, wantonly shooting at the gangmembers while dodging shrapnel and automatic gunfire. The criminals are even more wanton, shooting innocent bystanders as they beat a hasty retreat. But before they can escape, Tequila slides down a banister and rhythmically pumps 9mm shells into the fleeing triad members. But before he can catch his breath, the mysterious third man opens fire, and Tequila chases him back into the restaurant. Tequila's partner, Lionheart (Bowie Lam), is killed during the ensuing standoff, which Tequila quickly avenges by a coup de grace. It is later revealed that the mysterious third man was actually an undercover cop, and Tequila's men had stumbled onto a secret operation.

Look, I'm happy to die. But not by the hands of that bunch of rotten goatshit. I want you to shoot me, Tony.
Shoot you?
Shoot me. Go on, do it! Finish the job. There's no way out. Either you kill me or I kill you.

Meanwhile, Tony (Tony Leung, seen more recently in Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express") is a well-off hired killer, a paid employee of arms dealer Mr. Hoi, who attracts the attention of rival gun-smuggler Johnny (Anthony Wong). However, unbeknownst to these two adversaries, Tony is actually another undercover cop attempting to locate Johnny's secret arms cache. Johnny hires Tony and takes him to his first job-- a raid on Mr. Hoi's warehouse. Another example of Woo at his best is unraveled, as Johnny's men stylishly spray the warehouse with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. When Hoi arrives at the aftermath of the raid, he is surrounded by Johnny's men. Johnny then demands that Tony kill his former boss-- the closest thing to pathos in this flat movie.

So busy being a gangster I don't know which me is real.

However, watching the events unfold below, Tequila is on the roof of the warehouse, and drops in uninvited, a regular one-man army. During the confusion of the battle, Tony and Tequila come face-to-face, with their guns in each others faces. Tequila pulls the trigger, but he is out of bullets. Tony merely smiles, and escapes.

If I had slugs the other night, I'd have killed a cop.
Aren't we self-righteous. As a matter of fact, back at the teahouse, you did.
Yeah. It's not the first time-- accidents happen.
Please Tequila. Sacrifices. On duty. A police officer bravely sacrifices his life!
Sacrifices? Is that what you call it? You'd better tell us who are the cops and who are the thieves or do you want us to kill each other?

Convinced that Tony is actually an undercover cop, Tequila diligently tracks him down, despite the strict orders of his Chief Inspector. Together, Tequila and Tony discover Johnny's secret arms cache and in a final sequence that makes "Die Hard" look like "Power Rangers", cops and criminals begin a pitched battle in a crowded hospital.

You want to ask why? There's a hundred questions you ain't gonna get answered. Like why do cops need search warrants and not thieves? Why do cops have to write reports when they use a gun and robbers don't? Why are known murderers considered innocent until proven guilty? And why does the burden of proof lie on us, and not on them?

HB is a very stylish film, full of innovative stunts and gunplay that you won't find anywhere else. All of Woo's narrative tools are found here, such as the illustration of the identical thought processes between Tony and Tequila: shots of Tequila trudging through a library investigating a murder are intercut with shots of Tony take the same steps to commit the murder; or the close-up of the priceless facial expressions on Tony's as he reluctantly kills Mr. Hoi. In fact, it is Tony Leung, and not Chow Yun Fat who shines in this film. Chow Yun Fat's performance is merely limited to looking cool while firing two guns-- other than that, his portrayal of Tequila is uninspired.

Another problem with HB is that the story does not live up to the complex morality plays that dominate Woo's earlier work-- the contradictory choices that Tony and Tequila face are either non-existent or minimized. Furthermore, HB becomes quite ludicrous in spots in failed attempts at creating pathos. For example, during an attempt to get past a locked door, Tony is electrocuted. The slo-mo shot of his collapse is juxtaposed with that of Lionheart being shot in the Wyndham teahouse. Tequila quickly gives Tony CPR, and barely a second after Tony's heart is restarted, one of Johnny's men takes potshots at them. Tony, WHO JUST HAD A NASTY ELECTRIC SHOCK THAT STOPPED HIS HEART AND BREATHING, leaps off the floor to dodge the bullets and returns fire.

But still, despite the weakness in the writing department, "Hard Boiled" is one movie that will convert many to the cause. It is available in several versions in North America, both on videotape and laserdisc. The videotape is available in all combinations of badly-dubbed and well-subtitled, and pan-and-scan and widescreen. The Criterion Collection laserdisc includes a whole bunch of supplemental materials, including trailers and background information. And watch for the director in a cameo as the bar owner that Tequila talks to for advice.


Hard Target (1993)

"I wouldn't like to be an American director with a buddy-cop action movie coming out this summer, because there's a new sheriff in town and his name is John Woo" - Chuck Pfarrer, writer, "Hard Target"

After being treated to a private screening of "The Killer", the studio execs at Universal greenlighted Woo's American directorial debut, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle entitled "Hard Target". Written by ex-Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer, it was an update of "The Most Dangerous Game", with hunting trips in New Orleans being organized by Fouchon ("Millennium"'s Lance Henriksen). The prey-- homeless Vietnam veterans.

Take your big stick and your boyfriend, and find a bus to catch.

When Natasha (Yancy Butler, who spends most of the movie making her eyes as big as saucers), the estranged daughter of a recent hunting victim, comes to town to find her missing father, she is accosted by some scruffy low-lifes. Fortunately, Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), an unemployed seaman, comes to her rescue, and beats the crap out of them. Natasha, feeling vulnerable, requests Chance's services to help her locate her father. Chance declines, but then changes his mind when he can't afford union dues for a job on a shrimp trawler. Together, they stumble upon Fouchon's operation and soon they become the prey as they are chased across the city and the Louisiana Bayou, aided by Chance's Cajun uncle (Quaker Oats guy Wilford Brimley, with an accent even worse than Van Damme's).

How does it feel to be hunted?
Why don't you tell me?

Unfortunately, despite the hype, HT was disappointing, considering Woo's impressive filmography. However, the blame could not be laid at the director's feet. Woo faced many problems on the shoot of HT, one of them being the culture change. Being used to having a free hand in his native land, Woo had to deal with a compressed production schedule, as well as the many restrictions imposed by the studio-- how many people could be killed in each scene, how many bullets Chance could pump into somebody, how Chance could behave, etc. Though Woo counteracted these restrictions by finding inventive ways for Van Damme to combine martial arts and gunplay, he had problems getting Van Damme to go along with it. Said one insider, "Van Damme would play with the guns for a while, but then he'd put them down and revert to kicking". Even post-production had its share of difficulties with his first cut being rated NC-17, which did not bode well for a wide-release film-- essentially a kiss of death ("The Killer", on the festival circuit, was rated X). And so Woo went back to the editing room and pared it down further until it was deemed acceptable by the studio.

The script also does not play on Woo's strengths as a director. HT is a straight-forward actioner with a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys. Chance and Fouchon are not asked to question their own motivations-- their characterizations are very cut-and-dried. A far cry from the complex characters he created in "A Better Tomorrow" and "The Killer". But then again, if Chance was any more complicated, Van Damme's portrayal couldn't even possibly come close to doing it justice. Whereas Chow Yun Fat can show range of emotion or walk towards the camera in slo-mo and look cool, Van Damme doing the same only elicits chuckles from the audience.

HT also suffers from symptoms of creative bankruptcy-- not only does HT share half the title of Woo's previous film "Hard Boiled", but many of the action elements from HB also show up here. A gunfight between Chance and Fouchon's henchmen on motorcycle is a mirror of the warehouse shoot-out in HB. Fouchon fires a large-caliber 'musket', identical to the one fired by Johnny's henchman Mad Dog. When Natasha is cornered by one of Fouchon's men, she pumps him full of lead after being slapped-- the same scene occurs during the hospital finale in HB. And finally, a scene where Chance and Fouchon run along opposite sides of a wall while shooting is another incident of deja vu.

Sorry about the shirt.

But despite the diluted vision of Woo, HT is still head-and-shoulders above any comparable American action fare. There are a few memorable action sequences found here, including a slo-mo shot of an arrow barely missing Fouchon's head, the unbelievable backflip that Chance does over a pickup truck, and the final shoot-out in a Mardi Gras warehouse. Unfortunately, there are no plans to release Woo's original director's cut, though the European release is purported to contain a couple of minutes of extra footage.


Broken Arrow (1996)

That's what boxing's all about. You show your opponent one thing and you do another.

John Woo's second American directorial feature had a larger budget, bigger stars, and more special effects than "Hard Target". Unfortunately, the script by Graham Yost (who also scripted "Speed"), though a frantic chase picture, does not provide many opportunities for Woo to do what he is good at.

I know you love having the power of God at your fingertips. You get off on it.

The film opens up with Major Vic Deakins (cool and conniving John Travolta) and Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater), two United States Air Force officers, having a bout in a boxing ring. Deakins beats Hale senseless, complaining that Hale doesn't have the drive to win. This sets up the confrontation they have a few short hours later, during a test drive of a B3 stealth bomber carrying two live nuclear weapons. When Hale's back is turned, Deakins pulls out his gun to shoot his subordinate, but using the John-Woo-mirror trick, Hale sees the gun and a struggle breaks out. Hale ejects, leaving Deakins to drop the nukes before ejecting out himself.

I don't know what's scarier-- losing nuclear weapons or that it happens so often there's actually a term for it.

Hale wakes up in the Utah desert, his ego bruised by the betrayal of his fallen angel former commander. A Park Ranger, Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis), quickly attempts to arrest Hale but Hale quickly gets the upper hand and takes her gun. After a tense Chinese stand-off, with a knife-wielding Carmichael and gun-wielding Hale at each others throats, Hale convinces Carmichael to help him stop Deakins from stealing the nukes. What follows is a chase through a Utah desert using all manner of transport, from Hummers to boats to trucks and a finale on a speeding train (the only thing missing is a bus).

Who the hell are you?
Park Ranger... just put it down and I won't have to kill you.
This isn't a standoff! I've got the gun.
I never keep it loaded.

It's not all bad. There are a few moments where Woo is able to still put a spin on the lackluster material and the action sequences do have the 'Woo look', with people leaping through the air and guns somersaulting through the air in slo-mo to be caught by the protagonist. And the pacing is breath-taking, as usual. But unlike the films that made Woo famous, BA is more of a technology picture, where it is the machinery and not the people that drive the story. Deakins' motivation for nuclear terrorism, because he was passed up for promotion so many times, is also unconvincing.

Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons!

Too add insult to injury, there are glaring plot holes, continuity errors, and scientific inaccuracies that make BA even more ludicrous than it already is and demand the complete suspension of disbelief. What the hell are 'uncoded circuit boards'? How and why would Vic Deakins get access to them? How would a pilot even get close to manufacturing or modifying a bomb, an area out of their expertise? Why do nuclear weapons that are meant to be fired from an airplane have a visual readout timer (like who's going to see it)? Why does the glass on the helicopter gunship repair itself after Hale shoots it? Why does Terry lose her jacket after escaping from the mine, only to have it suddenly reappear when she sneaks onto the bad guys' truck? Why does the electromagnetic pulse from the nuclear explosion, which travels at the speed of light, arrive at the NEST helicopter at the same time as the seismic shockwave? When Hale surprises Deakins in the train car, how did he know which door Deakins would open? Why do all the helicopters in this movie crash or blow up? Why does the bomb have so much momentum when the train comes to a stop, knocking Deakins into the next area code? And is the only purpose of those gaps in the plot when Terry is on Deakins tail to merely avoid having to explain why nobody sees her?

I've got a broker in Stockholm who's going to buy me five per cent of Volvo and for the rest of my years, I'm going to live off the dividends happy in the knowledge that I'm helping to make the safest automobiles.

Overall, "Broken Arrow" is best viewed on an empty head. It still shows evidence of studio tampering that was evident in "Hard Target", but manages to please, if only because of Woo's directorial style.


Once a Thief (1996)

Serving as the pilot for a Fox television series and produced by Canada's Alliance Productions, it is a remake of Woo's 1991 godawful caper movie that reeked of commercialism. Mac Ramsey (Ivan Sergei), Li Ann Tsei (Sandrine Holt), and Michael Tang (Hong Kong heartthrob Michael Wong) are the three 'children' of a powerful Hong Kong underworld crime lord (Robert Ito), who took them in and raised them when they were young. They are trained thieves who steal exotic works of art with grand schemes and acrobatic execution. However, Mac and Li Ann begin to question the ethics of their work when their 'father' requests Mac to take over the arms dealing end of the family business. When they try to escape, Mac is caught by the police and Li Ann is forced to leave her love behind.

After rotting away in jail, Mac is coerced into joining a super-secret international law enforcement unit, led by the Director (stilted acting courtesy of Jennifer Dale). After joining, he learns that Li Ann is also working for the same organization, however, she is partnered with her new fiancé, Victor Mansfield (Nicholas Lea, Krycek on "The X-Files"). Li Ann, believing that Mac was dead, has moved on with her life. Their assignment is to take down the Hong Kong crime organization that they were so intimately involved in. To further complicate things, the cold and ruthless Michael has arrived in Vancouver to kill Mac and claim Li Ann for his wife.

It had its moments. The whole portfolio of John Woo cinematography techniques were there, the freeze-frame dissolves, the tracking shots, the dramatic dolly-ins, the juxtapositional cut-scenes, and of course, the glorious slo-mo. But unfortunately, this was a television project, and so the gunplay was toned down because of it. Though the body count was virtually non-existent, the shoot-outs still had Woo's trademark style.

Jennifer Dale wasn't the only one with the bad acting or the lousy lines. Ivan Sergei came across as a buffoon, nowhere near the complex tortured characters of Woo's halcyon days. Holt and Lea were tolerable, and Michael Wong, who was never a really good actor to begin with (check out his wonderful performance in Jackie Chan's "Thunderbolt") is passable.

"Once a Thief" essentially suffers from the split-personality of the previous OAT-- is it action, drama, or comedy? Instead of getting a crisp clean storyline, what ended up on the screen was a pastiche of conflicting styles, leaving a muddled mess of a movie. I hope this issue gets sorted out by the time the series hits the air.


Face/Off (1997)

Now that is how you make a John Woo movie!

When this is over, I want you take off this face and burn it.

After the false starts of "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow", director John Woo has finally made the type of film that made him famous in the late eighties/early nineties in Hong Kong, with the release of "Face/Off". It is an action film that combines all the visceral and thematic elements of the Heroic Bloodshed era-- true to Woo's vision.

Jamie, every week you change your clothes, your hair, your face. Who are you this week?
I'm still me.

Originally scripted to take place a couple of hundred years in the future, it was reinvented to take place in the present, preserving the plot device which the film revolves around-- that someone's face can be removed and placed on someone else, allowing them to adopt a new identity.

Sean Archer (John Travolta) is a dedicated FBI agent in a relentless pursuit after his nemesis, international terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Sean is consumed by a thirst for vengeance, since six years prior, his son was killed during a botched attempt on his life by Castor. This unsatisfied bloodlust has had its repercussions-- he is a dour reserved individual, with a touch of self-doubt, whose relationship with his wife Eve (Joan Allen) and his rebellious daughter is strained and he is unable to celebrate even the smallest triumph, putting a damper on his coworkers. Now contrast this with Castor-- a flamboyant, larger-than-life terrorist who dances at the drop of a hat and kills with panache. He is brimming with confidence and gives no thought to the consequences of his actions.

Receiving a tip, Archer races to the airport where he and his men corner Castor and his brother (Alessandro Nivola) who are about to escape on a plane. Archer manages to prevent the plane from taking off and it crashes into a hanger. After a shoot-out, Castor is in a coma and his brother is being carted off to prison. But before Archer gets a chance to celebrate, he finds a disk on the plane with details about a bomb that Castor armed before he was captured. When all attempts to learn the whereabouts of the bomb fail, one of Archer's assistants (C.C.H. Pounder, from "Millennium") suggests a surgical procedure that will remove the face from the comatose Castor and allow Archer to wear it. A microchip will then alter his voice so that he can slip into prison and get the information from Castor's unwitting brother. Archer undergoes the surgery and is then sent to the prison where Castor's brother is being held. As Archer (now as Castor) boards a helicopter to be taken to prison, he watches the hateful gaze of his coworkers, who are not aware of the undercover operation or of his true identity.

Archer's going to pissed when he gets back from his training exercise and hears about this.

Archer arrives in the dystopic prison, with magnetic boots that track each prisoner's whereabouts and where a giant television wall shows the Nature Channel all day long. He quickly learns that he must adopt the bravado and ruthlessness of his enemy to survive. The brother provides the information on the whereabouts of the bomb, but before Archer can notify anyone, he receives a visit from Sean Archer-- Troy in disguise. Having arisen from his coma, he has now taken Archer's identity and killed everyone that was aware of Archer's undercover operation.

As Troy leaves Archer to rot in prison, he begins to live Archer's life. He rekindles the romance with Eve and begins an extravagant war on terrorism that attracts the attention of the President. Meanwhile, Archer escapes the prison and becomes further entangled in Troy's life as he tries to find a way to stop Archer.

If you can suspend your disbelief of the surgical procedure, then FO works. Archer and Troy find themselves out of their element, having to adopt the mannerisms of their counterpart, which is not always easy to do. Troy imbibes the Archer persona with his own flamboyant style, which those around him find peculiar. On the other hand, Archer, while trying to act in the outrageous manner that his nemesis does, finds himself troubled by things he must do to maintain his cover. He finds himself empathizing with Troy's ex-girlfriend (Gina Gershon of "Bound") and her five year old son, and must make alliances with Troy's disreputable associates to get at Troy. For Archer, the fine line between good and evil becomes blurred as he must embrace the lifestyle of his enemy in order to stop him, much like the undercover cop in Woo's "Hard Boiled" from 1992. This is consistent with the typical John Woo protagonist, who find themselves caught in a moral dilemma, and whose actions, though necessary, fly in the face of their own convictions.

In terms of visuals, Woo delivers in this film. The gunplay has the slick hyperkinetic choreographed style that is a mainstay in his previous work, with the double-fisted shoot-outs, the mid-air acrobatics, and the graceful spasms of violence. In perhaps the most interesting example of Woo's balletic style, he counterpoints a shoot-out at a terrorist hideout with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The Christian symbolism, which also dominates his work, is apparent throughout the film, from the juxtapositional opening sequence where Troy has set the bomb in the Los Angeles Convention Center during a Church convention to the notes of Handel's "Messiah", to a tense standoff and shoot-out in a church, replete with the religious icons and flying birds that were found in "The Killer". And one noteworthy scene has Troy and Archer on opposite sides of a wall, with a mirror between them. As they point their guns, preparing to shoot the other, they see their reflections in the mirror. However, because their identities are switched, the image in the mirror is not a reflection of who they are, but who they are trying to kill.

The performances of Cage and Travolta are compelling, as they must actually play each other. However, between the two, Cage clearly shows more range, easily switching between the exterior facade of Troy and the tortured interior persona of Archer. Travolta is typically over-the-top as the cool and conniving Troy, much similar to his performance as Deakins in last year's "Broken Arrow".

It is evident that Woo had less studio interference this time out for "Face/Off", as this is the closest to the type of film he was making before he arrived in Hollywood. With a script that plays on the strengths of his directorial style and matches his own philosophy on characterizations, Woo has definitely made a winner here. Though not as good as "The Killer" or "A Better Tomorrow", his two best films, it certainly is up there and bodes well for his film-making future in North America.




"Blackjack" is the latest blood-splattered ballistic actioner from Hong Kong director John Woo. Unfortunately, this made-for-TV-but-went-straight-to-video pilot for a television series is bogged down by an uninteresting script, corny melodrama, and flat acting. It is a pale comparison to last year's "Face/Off", which exemplified John Woo at his best in his halcyon 'heroic bloodshed' days, and is not much better than his other made-for-TV project, "Once a Thief".

The protagonist of this low-rent offering is Jack Devlin (Dolph Lundgren), an ex-U.S. Marshal who freelances as a 'personal protection consultant', armed with razor-sharp playing cards and sporting a penchant for card tricks (puh-lease!). He becomes the reluctant guardian to Casey nine year old (Padriagin Murphy), whose casino-running father has been threatened by (who else?) Russian mobsters, and dies not long after in a mysterious car accident (series arc set-up!). During an attack on Casey by some Russian mafia-sent gun-toting thugs, Jack manages to save the girl, but he is temporarily blinded by a grenade. This results in a lingering fear of the color 'white' (of course, it is important to imbibe any dramatic character with an insurmountable challenge from which they will grow and develop, but this is ridiculous!).

But before Jack can grieve the death of his friend (and Casey's father), he is pressed into service by another old friend from the U.S. Marshals (Fred Williamson of "From Dusk 'til Dawn") who is injured in the line of duty protecting Cinder (Kam Heskin), a supermodel being stalked by a mysterious assassin (Phillip MacKenzie). Fortunately, not only is he assisted by the precocious Casey, but he is also helped by his loyal and flamboyant manservant (Saul Rubinek), and a sultry psychologist (Kate Vernon) who helps him overcome his fear of the color white. But Jack soon learns that guarding the pouty supermodel is more than he bargained for, as she has an insatiable craving for prescription painkillers and a few secrets of her own.

This is the second collaboration between John Woo and Canada's Alliance Communications Corporation, as part of an exclusive agreement for developing television properties. The television series "Once A Thief", despite dismal ratings in Canada, is finding a loyal following overseas, especially in Asian markets. This follow-up effort, like its predecessor, is an uneasy mix of comedy and action that is neither particularly funny nor exciting to watch ("Blackjack" even reuses some "Once a Thief" sets, as some astute viewers will notice). With the exception of a shoot-out in the second act reminiscent of the pyrotechnics in "Hard Boiled", the action sequences are nothing to write home about. Furthermore, Lundgren comes across particularly wooden as the protagonist, and MacKenzie as the bad-actor-turned-crazed killer is almost laughable for his hokey pathos (at least he got one aspect of his character right). On second thought, all the characters in "Blackjack" are uninteresting cardboard cut-outs: Murphy is the token moppet, who seems to serve no other purpose than as an injection of sentimentality; Vernon is the resident love interest, satiating the 18-24 male audiences with the requisite T&A; and Rubinek is the ambiguous gay character that serves as comic relief.

However, if you are looking for classic John-Woo-school-of-filmmaking, you'll find his all his standard techniques employed here. In addition to the balletic slo-mo shoot-outs, freeze-frames, and tightly-cropped shots of the character's faces, Woo utilizes his famous 'thinking like a criminal' use of juxtaposition, used to great effect in "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled". Unfortunately, cool camera tricks do not alone make a great film, as "The Replacement Killers" so aptly-illustrated.

If you're a John Woo fan, you might want to take a look at this one out of morbid curiosity. Let's hope that his next major theatrical effort, "King's Ransom", which reunites him with his leading man Chow Yun Fat, offers a package that includes a great script with great visuals. But for now, Woo fans will have to settle for "Blackjack".

Images courtesy of Daniel Wang's ACTIONWEB

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