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M.I.A.: John Woo

How do you spend your lazy Sundays? Perhaps Sunday is your day to tackle that mountain of dirty laundry accumulating unchecked in the corner of the closet. Or maybe Sunday is when you catch up on all the important napping you'd been putting off during the rest of the week. But for me, Sunday is the day I revisit some of my all-time favorite films. This week, I found myself charting some quality time with 1989's action classic The Killer starring Chow Yun-Fat. This got the ol' synapses firing in my brain and pondering the rollercoaster career of its celebrated director: John Woo.

Why We Love Him

John Woo is truly a living legend. Growing up, Woo was a survivor of the slums of Hong Kong and would often use the local movie house as a way to escape his less-than-ideal life. He became enamored of the directing talents of Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Pierre Melville: two masters I happen to admire as well. Woo's first job was working as an assistant director at the renowned Shaw Brothers Studios. These biographical tidbits would inform his career and make him one of the preeminent names in action cinema.

In 1986, Woo directed a gangster film called A Better Tomorrow in which he cast an up-and-coming young actor by the name of Chow Yun-Fat. He was impressed with Chow Yun-Fat's work in other films and appreciated the fact that this young man didn't look like the typical gangster. Ironically, this smash hit would lead to several subsequent collaborations in which Chow Yun-Fat would be Woo's go-to anti-hero; sort of the Toshiro Mifune to Woo's Kurosawa. The two tent pole collaborations to follow would be The Killer and 1992's Hard Boiled; two films on steady rotation around my house. Woo has admitted that much of The Killer is based on Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï.

But despite these influences, in his work with Chow Yun-Fat Woo established a style and approach all his own. He would often use slow motion and incongruently soft music to underscore his ultraviolent gun battles. He also made a habit of including shots of pigeons in flight to signal a coming gunfight. His work began to get noticed stateside by young directors like Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed heavily from Woo's City on Fire for the plot of Reservoir Dogs.

What Happened to Him?

As I said, Woo began to garner quite a bit of attention stateside, not just from film fans and aspiring auteur directors, but by Hollywood as well. Woo landed his first American project in 1993 directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target after Van Damme himself campaigned to the studio on Woo's behalf. But somehow, Woo was unable to duplicate in America the success he enjoyed in China. Despite some marginal commercial returns, none of his U.S. films captured that same combination of action and artistry for which he had become famous. After Hard Target, there was Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Mission: Impossible II, and Windtalkers…none of which were well-received critically.

Where's He Been?

In 2005, John Woo became the fifth Chinese director to be accepted to the board of judges for the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. In 2007, he directed a videogame called Stranglehold, which was based largely on the tropes of his own filmography. But Woo was far from retired from filmmaking. He returned to China to complete his epic period films Red Cliff and Red Cliff II. But these films were cut down into one film for international audiences. The compact film, simply Red Cliff, was released in 2009 in less than fifty theaters stateside; making it very difficult for any of us to have seen a John Woo film in theaters since 2003's Paycheck.

What Now?

There isn't a goodly amount of concrete data available concerning Woo's next project, although there are whispers that his next film is called The Red Circle; interesting given the fact that Le Circle Rouge was a landmark film from his mentor Jean-Pierre Melville. What isn't clear is whether this will be an international production or perhaps his return to Hollywood. In any event, I would love to see Woo return to the character-driven, artistically fascinating gangster action operas that made him the legend he is today. I would also love to see John Woo become a household name in America again.

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