Nationality: Chinese. Born: Guangzhou, China, 1 May 1946. Education: Matteo Ricci College, Hong Kong, 1967. Career: Started making experimental 16mm films in college; joined film industry as production assistant for Cathay Film Company, 1969; joined Shaw Brothers as assistant director to Zhang Che, 1971; made directorial debut with The Young Dragons, 1973. Agent: Hanson, Jacobson, Keller & Hoberman, 450 N. Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
The Young Dragon
The Dragon Tamers
Princess Chang Ping; Hand of Death; Countdown in Kung Fu ( + sc, role as Scholar Cheng)
Money Crazy; Follow the Star
Last Hurrah for Chivalry
From Rags to Riches
To Hell with the Devil; Laughing Times
Plain Jane to the Rescue
The Sunset Warrior
The Time You Need a Friend
Run Tiger Run
Heroes Shed No Tears (+ co-sc); A Better Tomorrow (+ co-sc, role as Inspector Wu)
A Better Tomorrow II (+ co-sc); Just Heroes
The Killer (+ co-sc)
Bullet in the Head (+ co-sc, ed, role as Police Inspector)
Once a Thief (+ co-sc, role as Stanley Wu)
Hard-Boiled (+ co-sc, ed, role as Night Club Owner)
Broken Arrow; Once a Thief (for TV) (+ exec pr)
John Woo's Blackjack (for TV) (+ pr); Face-Off
Mission Impossible II
Windtalkers; King's Ransom
Starry Is the Night (Hui) (role)
Cinema of Vengeance (Russell—doc) (as Himself)
Hot Blood is the Strongest (Leung) (role as Police Chief)
The Big Hit (Wong) (exec pr); The Replacement Killers (Fuqua) (exec pr)
Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (Cox—doc) (as Himself)
The Devil's Pale Moonlit Kiss (Spottiswoode) (pr)
By WOO: articles—
"John Woo: I Hate Violence," Interview, August 1993.
"Things I Felt Were Being Lost: John Woo," Film Comment, September-October 1993.
On WOO: books —
Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey ofJohn Woo, Lone Eagle Publishing, 1999.
Hall, Kenneth E., John Woo: The Films, McFarland and Company, 1999.
On WOO: articles—
Segers, Frank, "A Trans-Pacific Crossover: Woo at the Helm at U," Variety, August 1992.
Uszynski, J., "John Woo: Chopstick Gangster," Kino, October 1992.
Wice, Nathaniel, "Wooing Hollywood," Esquire, January 1993.
Allen, H., "Guncrazy in the Bayou," Village Voice, May 1993.
Corliss, Richard, "John Woo: The First Action Hero," Time, August 1993.
Howe, Desson, "Target: America—Director John Woo Brings His Ballets of Bloodletting to the States, with an Unlikely Star," Washington Post, August 1993.
Kenny, Glenn, "Master Blaster: John Woo, Cult Favorite," Entertainment Weekly, August 1993.
Jonascu, Michael, "Biting the Bullet," Film Threat, August 1993.
Wolcott, James, "Blood Test," New Yorker, August 1993.
Penner, Jonathan, "Wooing America: China's Premier Action Director, John Woo, Comes to the United States, with a Vengeance," Harper's Bazaar, October 1993.
* * *
For sheer visceral excitement and over-the-top graphic violence, few action films made today, either in the United States or abroad, come close to the work of transplanted Hong Kong writer-director John Woo—a twenty-year veteran of Oriental action cinema who began his career making martial arts movies with kung fu superstar Jackie Chan.
With these and several costume epics to his credit, Woo shifted to bloody melodramas about his country's pervasive problems of crime and gangsterism with A Better Tomorrow (1986). The film tells the story of an ace counterfeiter gone straight who runs into brutal conflict with his ex-cronies in the mob and his younger brother, an ambitious cop on the Hong Kong police force whose career rise is threatened because of his brother's past reputation and criminal associations.
One of the biggest box-office successes in Hong Kong movie history, A Better Tomorrow made a major star out of a charismatic actor in the Cagney/Bogart mold named Chow Yun-Fat, who plays a crippled hit man and confidante of the film's protagonist. John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat quickly became the Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese of Hong Kong cinema. They teamed for an equally successful sequel, A Better Tomorrow II, in 1987, and continued on an actionfilled roll, turning out one gangster film after another—with such titles as Bullet in the Head (1990), a grueling saga of revenge and high crime with the Vietnam War serving as a backdrop, Once a Thief (1991), and Hard-Boiled (1992), a noirish urban melodrama with a thirty-minute finale of gunplay set in a hospital that remains one of the most mesmerizing action sequences in the history of cinema.
The duo's most widely released collaboration stateside was The Killer (1990), the story of a world-weary mob hitman who suffers a crisis of conscience when he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer during a ferocious gangland shoot-out and—in the manner of Bogart's Roy Earle in High Sierra—undertakes one last job to pay for an operation to restore her eyesight.
Woo's Hollywood-gangster-film-inspired plots are a mixture of ripe sentimentality and macho romance with a moral grounding in such virtues as friendship, loyalty, and duty to God and country. Like the Italian action specialist Sergio Leone, dean of the "spaghetti Western," Woo treats the clichés of the genre as grand myths. But his most talked-about trademark is his balletic choreographing of violent set-pieces (often in slow motion) in the manner of the late Sam Peckinpah, the director Woo seems to have been most influenced by. The climax of Peckinpah's landmark Western The Wild Bunch (1969) erupted with what is still one of the most gut-wrenching, pyrotechnical displays of firepower and bloodletting ever put on the screen. Imagine if you will a director who stages all the action sequences in his films—and they are virtually non-stop—in the same over-the-top style and you have a good idea of what the action films of John Woo are like. There is a chasm of difference though between the disquieting, raw-nerve power of Peckinpah's scenes of violence (particularly in The Wild Bunch) and Woo's montages of mayhem, which function (and engage us) on the same level as video games.
Woo's growing worldwide reputation as an action specialist prompted Hollywood to import him in 1993 to try to breathe some new "life" into the tired action genre here as well with Hard Target, a Woo-style updating of Richard Connell's classic tale of bloodsport, The Most Dangerous Game, which marked the Hong Kong action wiz's American film debut. Woo had to do some careful trimming to avoid an NC-17 rating for the film, which Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman hailed as "an incendiary action orgy, as joyously excessive as the grand finale in a fireworks show." Woo followed Hard Target three years later with Broken Arrow, a thriller about a bad-guy Air Force pilot who crash lands his stealth fighter in order to steal the nuclear missiles on board and sell them to the highest bidder. Cast against type as the bad guy, John Travolta gives a broad, scenery-chewing performance that, much like the film itself, grows tiresome and eventually loses all credibility as the plot swings into high-tech gear and total improbability. The film was a hit, and Travolta and Woo enjoyed working together so much that they teamed again for Face/Off. This time around, Travolta plays the hero—a federal agent who, in order to get the goods on a contract terrorist's (Nicolas Cage) next job, switches faces with Cage through high-tech surgery and gets close to Cage's brother by pretending to be Cage. Complications mount when Cage pulls the same charade by having Travolta's face grafted on to his own kisser and pretending to be Travolta—and the two adversaries square off for a series of bloody confrontations to resolve their respective identity crises.
Because of his concern about the fate of his native Hong Kong (and, one assumes, its movie industry) now that the country has returned to Chinese hands, Woo has taken up permanent residence in Hollywood. The greater opportunities (and bigger bucks) Hollywood offers to filmmakers with his special skills were undoubtedly a big inducement to expatriate as well. His reputation as the action movie genre's premier maestro now as assured here as it was in Asia, Woo has parlayed his success by producing TV movies, helping his former star Chow Yun-Fat launch a Hollywood career (in The Replacement Killers, which Woo executive-produced), and landing the highest profile blockbuster assignments (like the Tom Cruise-starring Mission Impossible II) on which to put his distinctive bullets-andballetics stamp.