Concerning John Woo

The “heroic bloodshed” films made in Hong Kong are unique in the genre of action movies.  The individuality of these films is due largely to the fact that “heroic bloodshed” films derive from two sub-genres intrinsically tied to the Hong Kong film industry.  The first sub-genre being the Kung Fu film, from which the “heroic bloodshed” films barrow their over the top stylization of violence and simple narratives of vengeance and redemption.  The second key influence comes in the form of the Chinese melodrama, whose plasticity, manifest with dramatic rain effects and music cues, is manipulated to embellish the dramatic story arcs at the heart of “heroic bloodshed” films.  If one hasn’t seen many Hong Kong action films this description gives the impression that these films are low-brow entertainment, but there is more here than meets the eye.  Filmmakers such as Ringo Lam and Taylor Wong were able to construct some of the most elaborately choreographed action sequences ever put onto film and utilized some of the most cutting edge editing techniques.  Yet, no filmmaker has ever been able to take this genre to the heights director John Woo did between 1986 and 1992.


John Woo’s first “heroic bloodshed” film was A Better Tomorrow (1986), a film about brothers on either side of the law and how they must work to redeem themselves in each other’s eyes, which was also the first of many films Woo would make starring Chow Yun Fat.  A Better Tomorrow established most of the significant conventions that would appear in almost all of Woo’s subsequent films.  Woo’s films would very often center around stories of revenge and redemption, fleshed out with gory shoot outs that are photographed in slow motion, with an elder character who recalls “the old days” when gangsters followed a code of honor, and with a love interest who passes from one friend to another when one of the friend’s is believed dead.  A Better Tomorrow established all of these John Woo trademarks that would go on to become tropes of the genre.

When films such as City On Fire (1987), City War (1988), and Full Contact (1992) began adopting Woo’s style as their own Woo’s own films begin entering a maturity, focusing more on highly stylized and meticulously choreographed scenes of gun play in addition to a new emphasis on character.  The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992) navigate Woo’s popular style with an emphasis shift, utilizing a dramatic arc designed to be a character study of the relationship between two men and the ramifications of their contradictory perspectives.  Unlike their counterparts in America, such as Cobra (1986), The Terminator (1984) or Die Hard (1988), John Woo’s films are genuinely interested in understanding the psychology of his action heroes, even if this analysis he has undertaken manifests itself in a highly exaggerated form.  The films of his contemporaries working in America within a similar genre dominated by “super cops” and “honorable hoods” cannot move their narratives beyond the necessities of the genre, relegating any meaningful comment on violence or the “honor of men” to the peripherals of the film, preferring guaranteed escapism to insight.


However, just because Woo attempts to determine the motivations behind violence and the meaning of brotherhood does not ensure that he is always successful.  The Killer (1989) is not nearly as successful in this undertaking as Hard Boiled (1992), largely because Woo was given a budget that could enable him to construct a longer and more complex narrative than could be afforded The Killer.  Interestingly, components from The Killer and not Hard Boiled reappear in Woo’s American film Mission: Impossible II (2000) when Tom Cruise has a shoot out in slow motion surrounded by white doves, perhaps realizing a shot unattainable in the earlier film.  Other than moments of self-reference, the sensibilities of John Woo’s American films are out of sync with his work in Hong Kong.

-Robert Curry


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Filed under Summer 2013

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