Bullet in the Head (Woo, 1990)

Bullet in the Head lacks a coherent story structure and Woo blatantly relies on his patented visual tricks to impress and hide the multitude of sloppy transitions and gaps in plot. The film suffers greatly because it is far too long for the material being shown, and if you’ve seen his better work it feels doubly disappointing because of the absence of Chow Yun Fat. There’s a brutal sequence during the middle in a Vietcong POW Camp that creates many dire moments of character conflict, something the rest of the film lacks greatly. This is John Woo’s war film, but it comes across as a series of junctures sparring between a dedicated political goal and stupid gun play, never fulfilling the promise of this director being given full reign and a huge budget.

Hard Target (Woo, 1993)

Really the one American John Woo effort that reflects the director’s thematic and stylistic Hong Kong roots. Hard Target also has a biting critique of homelessness under it’s countlessly impressive action sequences, and it’s to Woo’s credit he uses Jean-Claude Van Damme’s sweaty charm and brutal punches to frame such ideas. Also, the group of hunter villains in the film actually mean something to the vision beyond their flashy ability to kill, representing a dominant and dangerous elite with the ideology that all humans are not created equal. Woo gives Van Damme all the chances to destroy these truly evil men, more importantly with style and grace unseen in his later pictures.

Broken Arrow (Woo, 1996)

Revisiting John Woo’s American films has been both a revelatory and saddening experience. On the one hand, I know why I liked them as a teenager (the visceral gun battles are still impressive), and on the other I get why they now feel incomplete and childish (from an actual filmmaking standpoint they remain pretty amateurish). Broken Arrow, even more so than Face/Off, plays by it’s own illogical, irrelevant, and inane rules, giving it’s filmmaker credence to just about anything at the cost of plot and character. Travolta hams it up and Slater has a few funny lines, but the real downer is Woo’s use of ridiculous special effects in favor of his patented up close and personal action scenes. At least Hard Target takes some chances in terms of violence represented (that snake scene still gets me). Broken Arrow is about as tame as Woo can get and for this reason it’s by far his worst film here in the States, playing almost like a comedy in some sections when it should be impressing with hard nosed action.

Face/Off (Woo, 1997)

I recently read a quote from an Entertainment Weekly critic lambasting Quentin Tarantino for spending his career making films idolizing and glorifying the cinema he watched as a teenager. The critic went on to say people “tend to overrate the films they loved between the ages of, say, 13 and 20, when they were — how to put this politely? — easy to stimulate.” Wow. I didn’t realize how true this statement really is until I revisited John Woo’s Face/Off, a film I desperately loved at the age of sixteen. Now, in watching the constant barrage of exaggerated exchanges between John Travolta and Nicholas Cage l couldn’t help but realize Face/Off is a marginal action picture at best, entrenched in ill-logic and absurd plot contrivances for the sake of action. Face/Off exceeds even Woo’s own brand of heightened heroic bloodshed due to the fact he’s using Hollywood gloss to sugarcoat the rough and tumble style of his Hong Kong pictures. John Woo, if anything, is a teenage boys wet dream of a director, zeroing in on the stimulation aspect the critic above was describing. Woo’s ballet gun fights, his use of slow motion, and destruction of mise-en-scene, create a wondrous aesthetic which doesn’t require much active thought to absorb. Where The Killer, Hard-Boiled, and his other great Hong Kong films mix that approach with a blurring of character morality, Woo’s Hollywood films don’t allow for such complications. Travolta and Cage, even when they switch faces, just show they can overact and underact according to these rules. Woo’s Hollywood resume isn’t great, and it might be even worse now that his “American masterpiece” (as I once thought it to be) has been defaced. For all it’s technical glory (Woo could do these gun battles in his sleep), Face/Off lacks any tension outside the surface level banter between it’s shifting protagonists. Maybe the fact Travolta and Cage haven’t aged well in Hollywood, and I consider somewhat of a joke nowadays, plays into how disappointed I am. However, this doesn’t excuse Woo’s blatant disregard for coherance of story in the face of big budget gadgetry. Such a talented director from Hong Kong did indeed lose his magic crossing the Pacific Ocean, and it’s sad for this teenager at heart to finally admit it.

The Killer (Woo, 1989)

The flip-side to Hard-Boiled‘s collective brutality, The Killer is John Woo’s deft combination of character and carnage on a more personal level. Instead of mass slaughters involving civilians, police, and gangsters, it’s Chow Yun Fat’s conflicted assassin versus the world, a man who eventually becomes bitten by the human consequences of his violent actions. His only solace comes in the friendship of a renegade cop (the equally cool Danny Lee) and the love of the woman he has accidentally blinded, played by Sally Yeh. Woo makes a conscious effort to base The Killer in the complexities of Fat’s anti-hero, a man who revolves remarkably back and forth between efficient killer and caring, friendly companion. That’s not to say the bloody gun battles in The Killer aren’t fascinating to watch. While the technical scope of The Killer‘s action sequences are no match for Hard-Boiled‘s ridiculously complicated staging, they resonate more seamlessly because Woo has pre-set them with great characters. Hard-Boiled is impersonal, funny, and universally awesome, while The Killer slows down (at least a bit) the Woo motifs of religious guilt, male angst, and regret, allowing story to take precedent over extreme blood and gore, making for an equally satisfying experience. I remember thinking Hard-Boiled to be effortlessly superior to The Killer when I viewed them as a teenager. But in watching each again, it’s great to see how Woo constructs both with similar tools and aesthetics but with a completely different tone in mind. Hard-Boiled shows the mass destruction of this style, while The Killer revels in the personal tragedies which will occur under Woo’s guise. Each represents the very best in Hong Kong action cinema, just don’t confuse them as twin brothers in blood. No, Hard-Boiled never allows any of it’s human’s to feel the pain and The Killer makes sure they do. Cynical, relentless, and vengeful, The Killer might indeed be Woo’s best film. It’s certainly his most human.