Being John Woo

How a one-time genius of the Hong Kong ganster pic brought his brand of "nothing to believe in" to Hollywood, and why we ended up with Mission: Impossible 2 instead of A Better Tomorrow.

Now that we've all seen The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, we're getting familiar with films that use Hong Kong filmmakers' weird, wild ways of exploring the unexpected, whether it's heroes who sail high over forests of swaying bamboo, brandishing swords against demons and villains, or sleek, normal-looking folks who, with a quick duck and turn, do a no-hands cartwheel and whip out the heat to plunge us all into a breathless three minutes of steel-plated manic violence. The late-90's/2000 iteration of Hong Kong, USA, is long on choreography, so it is possible to miss the fact that Hollywood's look to the east for inspiration (and fuel for a sagging box office) began a while ago, when studio heads cottoned on to the comedic success of actors like Jackie Chan, and also, especially, to a new group of films, charismatic and seductive as all get out. The front man was a tall, broad-shouldered, dark-eyed actor named Chow Yun Fat, but the eyes and the brains of the organization were his smoking director, the all- action maestro, John Woo.

John Woo is a genius of cinema. That is, the Hong Kong John Woo is a genius. With his producer, and sometime rival, Tsui Hark, he is one of the original end-of-the-world, Hong-Kong-about-to-become-China filmmakers who brought about the "golden age" of HK cinema. Check out movies like The Killer (1989), or A Better Tomorrow (1986), and consider the terms that have been used to describe Woo's films: violent, yes, but also gorgeous, balletic, operatic, even. All true. They are gangster movies, shoot'em ups with body counts on a par with any of Hollywood's summer blockbuster best. But they are imbued with something different. Hong Kong Woo, if we were to put him in a US frame, is the spaghetti western—a dark-minded frontier film, of which I'll say more in a moment—made over in the texture and the color values of The Godfather, and with Coppola's melancholy nostalgia bleakened into despair. This is millennial cinema, only the frontier it was originally pitched against was immutable: not our muddled watershed of 2000, or 2001, depending which millennium you counted. It was definite: July 1,1997, 12:01 am, the precise date of Hong Kong's handover to China. And there's a gulf between the "there's nothing to believe in" produced by that deadline and Hollywood's trademark "Wow, that's unbelievable!" that no amount of budget, no repetition of the trademark sequences, no star power has been able to transcend—unless we get jaded and "meta," and say that Woo's whole US career provides the evidence that the dead-end worldview of the Hong Kong gangster films was right.

Because let's face it: Woo's Hollywood incarnation... needs some work. More precisely, US Woo movies are terrible. His most brilliant techniques have taken a grievous swerve into the banal—mostly under pressure of the standard show-me-the-money Hollywood formula, but to some degree due, it must be surmised, to some stagnation on the part of Woo himself. Whatever the reason, the soulful, cold-blooded finesse of his early movies has given way before gratuitous-gun mass-death might 'n' right schlock that—and this might come as a surprise—he actually doesn't do very well.

I was half-watching Mission: Impossible 2 on pay-per-view one night. The opening sequences were promising enough, and the first twenty minutes were actually pretty good. Tires a-squealing, we were hugging the curves high above Seville when —pffft. We hit The Wooze: that spate of John Woo knock-off moments. You know, the all-guns-cocked standoffs, in which smoldering gazes between hero and villain telegraph the simpatico that dare not speak its name; the endless shoot-out orgies, in which—wait! The fallen rises to shoot again!, etc. As we meandered along through the final death match, a desultory-type motorcycle-chase-cum-brutal-beating, clocking in at 13 minutes (in The Killer it takes 15 for things to wrap up, but in that movie, the villain dies three times), I finally hit the 'menu' button on my remote to find the culprit: who made this sorry excuse for a John Woo movie? Then I sat back on the sofa and digested the news. MI-2 is a Woo film.

Ah yes! Suddenly, I was back in that hot summer's night at the Emeryville, CA, multiplex. We suffered through air-conditioned fifty-five degree temperatures for two-plus hours, as hairy, maudlin Cage and Travolta browbeat me and my fellow audience members towards a catharsis-manqué, man's love and hatred of man. Ah yes, Face/Off. What has happened to John Woo, stateside?

First, let's get back to The Wooze. Cut to a sterile lab environment, mid-nineties, Burbank, CA. A bunch of scientist-types in white lab coats are grouped around a wall of monitors, studiously watching and rewatching Reservoir Dogs, nodding, squinting, busily scribbling notes on clipboards, as they try to figure out why that movie worked. It's a downtime for the shoot'em up. Thanks to folks like Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July; 1989) and Kevin Costner (Dances with—you know; 1990), the pumped-up, red, white and blue masculinity of the Rambo and Die Hard '80s is wilting, while directors, from John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood; 1991) to the godfather of gangster himself, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas; 1990), are taking an ominous turn towards remorseful, self-doubting meditations on the effects wrought on male subjectivity by the American mythos of violence—sheesh! Moreover, they are gobbling up the box office while doing so. Meanwhile, from an unexpected direction, Kenneth Branagh's Shakespearean swashbuckling Henry V (1989) rides in to challenge the primacy of the gun as the weapon of choice for the end of the millennium. Does the future lie in swordplay? (Rob Roy + Braveheart; 1995 = nope). In the face of all of this our team of specialists has been asked to determine what made the bloodstained and apology-less Reservoir Dogs (1992) click. What did Tarantino figure out that the studios didn't yet know? Grooving to the soundtrack, they are nevertheless stumped until a delivery boy from the local coffee shop—sort of a Leslie Cheung type, though he's played by Matt Damon—pauses in the doorway to watch the film's final shoot-out. "Hey!" he says, "I've seen that stuff before! What's happening? You guys working on a remake of A Bullet in the Head?"

"Eureka!" A particularly Californian iteration of the zeitgeist sounds throughout the lab. It pours through an open window, rolls over the mountains, and out towards the gleaming sea. "We've got it! Cancel Willis and Van Damme, stat!1 Get Gibson, Travolta and Cage on the line! A new dawn approaches for American steel! Behold his approach, the thinking man's gunslinger!"

You take it from there, about what happened next. Once it was established that John Woo was the Secret Sauce for the New Gun Flick, Hollywood went to work. They flew in John Woo, they signed up Jet Li, they hired up a slew of temps to staff the redial button, and got moving on getting Chow Yun Fat and Michele Yeoh on the phone. "Gotta spend money to make money. Here's millions, boys. Hee haw! Gee-up'n'go!"2

But where was the gold in them thar reels? Following all the hubbub was a string of real nonstarters. Broken Arrow, Face/Off, MI-2, you name it, they've got the dove flights, the empty churches, the pathos and the bloodbaths. When Nicholas Cage gets an eyeful of himself in the guise of John Travolta, we even get the homoeroticism (whatever unpleasant mental pictures that one brings to mind). Despite all this, however, and with exception made for the cool, dead-on Replacement Killers (1998), the whole thing has been pretty much of a wash. The best "Woo movie" to have been made in the US is probably The Way of the Gun, and that's a film by Chris McQuarrie. In contrast, no matter how many times you watch the Hong Kong-made Woo movies: A Better Tomorrow, The Killer or A Bullet in the Head, it's those very same sequences that work: the doves and the candle-lit church are luminous set pieces; the shooters freeze, and you can see the quivering of their muscles in the gun-in-the-face standoffs; tension builds, men don't understand themselves and seek their mirrors in each other; the women who could tell them about it have their faces blown off; and, best of all, the limpid eyes of Chow Yun Fat are, well, precisely that.

So what's the difference? What's missing? It's tempting to round up the usual suspects. I'm almost embarrassed to bring up the old chestnut about how when a US crew catches a hold of someone offshore who has his finger, to quote Stephen Short,3 "99.9999% on the hip button," a number of things do seem to go wrong— big-budgetitis, over-exposure, and, most killingly, the cancerous "adaptation" of a director or an actor's best features "for an American audience." (On the other hand, why should I feel embarrassed here, if it's the Hollywood producers who are the ones repeating their dumb mistakes over and over, otra vez, encore, ancora, ad nauseum?)

In the case of John Woo, however, the effects of these standard problems are exacerbated, first by the inevitable gaucho-er-ie of our American relationship to guns, and secondly, by a case of genre confusion.

About the guns: To restate the obvious, we love them, and they're Hollywood's bread and butter. That's nothing new. But I'd refine the point slightly and point out that the way that we love them, in cinema, at least, is different: different from the cool French, with their sleek leetle revolvers; different from the Japanese pistols in yakuza flicks (which look like they were purchased in bulk from the closing sale of T.J. Hooker). It's even different—though they certainly are trying to get it right—from the cocksure, boy's school, laff-'n'-gore flicks the Brits have been pumping out lately. We love guns in a primal way, absolutely, and un- ironically. If pressed on the subject, most Americans would probably admit that guns are essential to the weave of our culture in the manner of other unnoticed, but absolute essentials: t-shirts, food-grade yellow #6, neon-lit main drags through town. Sure, there are the periodic outbursts of orgiastic glee. An Arnold Schwarzenegger urban-massacre, location here or in outer space, is a harbinger of summer, as sure and as necessary as that first skinny-dip in the lake every year, but their periodic scheduling serves to indicate the degree to which we as a culture have internalized a calendar brought to us by Warner-Fox-Paramount and the NRA. If this fact was ironized and pomo'ed in Dogs, and in its subsequent litter (Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, etc.), that doesn't do much to change the fact that, generally, a good display of guns is as American as apple pie, or adolescence.

There's seemingly no conflict between what I'm describing about our American way and the gunplay that takes up most of the running time of, say, The Killer. Guns in Woo's Hong Kong movies function as a natural extension of the hand. But the elegance with which guns are both wielded and photographed in Woo's movies is way too sophisticated for us, even at our cinema's most baroque. The attention lavished by Woo on the pistols and semiautomatics whipped out and fired by Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee finds its equal in the loving photography of interiors, textures and fabrics in movies like The Godfather, maybe, but despite all I've just said about us and guns, you don't find an equal treatment of the weapons themselves, even the most gun-happy of the high action flicks. Why?

This gap leads directly to my second observation about genre. Broken Arrow, Face/Off, MI-2 all show that Hollywood has pigeonholed John Woo as the cowboy who would ride in from the east to save the tottering blockbuster. But how did the studios miss the fact that in Hong Kong Woo's movies weren't blockbusters at all? For one thing, they were low-budget (it's no small point). For another, they had a political agenda that veered from the blockbuster's by about, oh, one hundred and eighty degrees, maybe? The '80s blockbuster, from the early Schwarzeneggers and the Rambos, Commandos, through the Terminators and Die Hards, and all the way through the increasingly blockbuster-ish Lethal Weapons were, in one way and another, about the bounce-back of American macho from our losses in Vietnam. They put the pow! (ratta-tat-tat click pithew?) back in P.O.W. By extension, then, they were about the restitution of America to its rightful place as World Cop. This is frankly stated in the Rambos, and it's not too hard to read it into in the spate of ëmurrican vs. jungle movies that followed in its wake (Predator, 1987). Sure, the Terminators include some nuclear holocaust-paranoia, but you can read this as a new plot twist through which to express the essential import of the genre, which is that American manhood was re-brawned, strong and ready to serve, protect, and extend our god-given, goddamn hegemony, by any means necessary, or, rather, through an unlimited arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, through bodies liberally shot up with steroids, and, on the commercial side, through a display of surround-sound and digital effects that could—and which now pretty much have—stunned the rest of the world's movie industries into submission, and dubbing.

Could the context for 1980's Hong Kong cinema be any more different than ours? The early Woo movies were made as Hong Kong's final years as a British colony came to a close, and the handover to China approached. They are frontier movies, conceived and shot against a horizon which, as I've already said, was as millennial as our own Y2K. In light of what this future portended—the perceived end of capitalism, personal mobility, and cinema—all that firepower, all that killing, meant something. It wasn't just "getting your gun off" (Ethan to Ambrose, not once, but twice, in MI-2), it was a death dance with the universe. Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, cinematographer Wong Wing Hang, were telling stories about the approach of the end of the world. What would August '97 look like? A Better Tomorrow? Yeah, right. Woo films weren't about a pumped up macho brave new order. They were about men playing life out at the end of the world.

To understand undercurrents of Woo's Hong Kong films, we need to look elsewhere—into the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. To trace the origins of The Killer, think movies like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Think Clint Eastwood, and teeming hoards of nameless villains, all of them squinty-eyed in the sun, all of them living out dark nights of the soul at high noon—grim killing for little reason, maudlin masculine identity and grim redemptive gesture; saintly women, violate and violated. Leone is the source, by inspiration, anyway, of those abandoned adobe churches, the doves and the standoffs, and, of course, those glowering sunsets that take place just out of frame, but which light scenes with an eerie, hellish intensity. The Killer even wraps up with a lonesome harmonica. It's all wild, wild west, albeit done over in the lush colors and textures of Godfather I and II. But even the Godfathers were stories of decadent worlds in decline.

MI-2 is set primarily in Australia. I'd like to view that as a Woo-ism: perhaps he got to vote on setting this film in the former colonies. Perhaps the killer virus that threatens Sydney, and, from there, the world, is the corporate globalization that makes independence, colonization and annexation moot, that makes the whole world, makes the air itself, the new frontier of international marketing. That is, maybe with Paramount's blessing he made a movie about a nemesis far more powerful than one single country ever could be. Maybe MI-2 represents a new consciousness on Woo's part that fears about China-Hong Kong are small beer compared to the ravenous, devouring forces unleashed by global markets. Well, no, of course, I really don't think so. The Avis signs, the Sprites and Diet Cokes, the Audi logos, the famous BMW bike, all make this kind of argument a hard sell, are in fact more suggestive of an argument à la Being John Malkovich: all the studio execs, corporate sponsors, marketing types, lining up, paying their million dollars and getting a chance to drop down the chute and settle in for a few minutes behind the eyes of the Great One. The consequent implosions get set to a thundering soundtrack, and are released in a 2+ hour version for those hot summer nights.

Except, of course, that in Being John Malkovich, Malkovich's character was a helpless victim, while the situation with Woo is a little more ambiguous. He is making these movies, after all, and the problem is less that there are getting to be a lot of them, none of them visibly better than those mid-nineties efforts, than it is the sinking feeling, as we find ourselves staring down yet another candle-lit pew and bunch of birds, that he's only half-making them, that he knows that he's not working, and that the world doesn't know the difference.

John Woo! We do! Snap out of it! Make us a real movie, something that will really turn us on. Blow my mind. Show us the future, like you used to do. That's what being John Woo was all about, back there in the distant eighties; now, post-China, post-millennium, if the tales to be told are no longer grim stories of those long nights just before the end of the world, show us what they should be, and how they should be told. (Don't shrug and say it's just more capitalism. We know there's more than that.) Shake your crystal ball, then toss the cigarette in the gasoline and go. Make it fantastic. Make it true. Be John Woo.