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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Director of the Week – Pre Hollywood John Woo

John Woo made some frickin’ aces movies in Hong Kong in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
The 1st time I heard his name mentioned was in an interview with Quentin Tarantino (hot off Reservoir Dogs). I’d seen trailers for Hard Target (John Woo’s American Debut) but was unimpressed. But, after hearing Tarantino go on and on about Woo, I went right out and watched Hard Target.

Let me get this outta the way, I like Hard Target quite a bit. I think it’s Van Damme’s best, prior JCVD. IT wasn’t the level of awesome I had heard Woo was capable of but it was pretty neat. The fluid, ballet like camera, slo motion, freeze frames, well-choreographed gun play. I certainly liked it enough to seek out Woo’s earlier work.

Now this was in the early 90’s and I lived in Indiana. John Woo’s Hong Kong work was not readily available. I found a pirate video store in Ohio that had bootleg VHS copies of lots of hard to find foreign movies, including John Woo. *I also discovered Ringo Lam and Tsai Hark (future directors of the week and Jean-Claude Van Damme conduits) through them.

1st up The Killer. Wow. Still my all time favorite John Woo. I was blown away. I sat mouth open in awe of this movie. 1st off, who was this Chow Yun Fat dude? He was super cool. Then there was the way Woo shoots. So fluid, I think there are maybe 3 or four living directors that move the camera as well as Woo.

I followed the Killer up with a Better Tomorrow 1 and 2. I liked both, though not as much as the Killer. But I will say that the last 20 minutes of Better Tomorrow 2 maybe the best gun battle sequence ever filmed. I can’t think of one better.

Then I saw Bullet in the Head. It’s probably his most mature piece of work, but I didn’t get the same visceral thrill from it as I did from his others.

Finally Hard Boiled, his most “American” Hong Kong feature. But it features 3 really great actions set pieces, another show stopping performance from Chow and a great single shot action sequence set on 2 floors of a hospital. *Apparently there is a masked dissolve cut somewhere in the single take, but I wouldn’t have know it if I hadn’t heard Woo mention it in the commentary.

All his American work has been inferior. I still say Hard Target, his first, was his best. Most people would argue Face Off is better and while the story and the acting may be, the action sequences weren’t nearly as “Woo.” They lacked the sense of controlled chaos that made his Hong Kong work so special. You just know they were choreographed meticulously, but they didn’t look it. They felt more immediate, almost improvised. His American work just feels, well more American and manufactured.

Anyway, I’ve yet to see Red Cliffs, his return to Hong Kong cinema. But it’s on my queue.

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