John Woo is one of the world’s most daring action directors working today. He is the epitome of stylized action, just like Alfred Hitchcock epitomized cinematic suspense. Many action movies display great spectacle over storytelling — much like cheap jump-scares are to horror films — but Woo combines great spectacle with great story. He is the perfect example of an action director with substance.
No matter the countless bullets and explosions, it’s exciting to see how Woo's action works as visual poetry. He is a daring filmmaker because his approach is risky — most of the time his trademarks work, and sometimes they don't, but his work behind the lens is always unique. Here's why.
1. The Standoff Two-Shot
Whether it’s John Travolta and Nicolas Cage back-to-back against a wall, or Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung face-to-face, Woo's take on the western standoff is always a frame composed of two opposing characters (whether they are hero or villain doesn’t matter) facing a life-or-death situation.
The director’s approach isn’t what it seems. What Woo likes to establish in these shots, besides gripping tension, is the nature of his characters' dynamics and change through confrontation. In Hard Boiled, Chow Yun Fat’s Tequila and Tony Leung’s Alan go from estranged enemies to allies — because, when they face off with dueling pistols, they decide not to pull their triggers. Their non-verbal standoff sets forth their unlikely partnership.
A standoff in a John Woo film doesn't always end with gunshots, but it always reveals depth and pathos.
2. The Gun As A Character
There’s always a gun in the classic John Woo movie, but in his best work — #ABetterTomorrow, #TheKiller and #Hardboiled — it's a major character. Woo enjoys the pressure at a close space, with the gun serving as the scene’s host.
In a scene from The Killer, Chow Yun Fat’s Ah Jung is visited by his boss, the man soon to betray him. Jung’s gun is the focus of the entire scene. Right away, the scene describes what the gun stands for: the power balance between the two characters, which shifts throughout.
Although this method has been used numerous times in American action movies, this scene from The Killer stands out because of its use of close-ups and point-of-view shots. It establishes what the gun can do as a character, bringing out secrets as it changes from one hand to another, until a new one pops out and takes the scene into a shootout.
3. The Physically Indestructible, Morally Flexible Hero
John Woo treats his main character as a flawed human being, disguised as the indestructible man, a trademark used to intensify each action sequence. This archetype was wonderfully crafted thanks to the badass performances of Chow Yun Fat in films such as The Killer and Hard Boiled, which show the protagonist with morality issues. The classic John Woo movies are stories centered around troubled cops and gangsters — characters who are grounded and practical.
When the shootouts happen, the indestructible man barely reacts to the bullets passing by, like the Terminator with attitude.
4. Action That Utilizes The Whole Environment
What the hero does best in a John Woo movie is use the objects around him. The shootouts and explosions display lovable chaos that involves every possible thing within the confines of the set. Papers are flying everywhere, cars are being smashed, sparks are whistling like fireworks, ropes are being used to swing on, and boxes are exploding into pieces. Everything that involves glass is shattering, while tables are flipping over. A hint of smoke paints the entire scenery.
Chow Yun Fat’s character is always sliding on carts to wheel his way across rooms, firing at everyone he sees. He’s sliding down rails of staircases with dual pistols and emptying clips.
It’s cool to see doves flying everywhere while indestructible heroes are posing with guns in their hands. Woo’s exaggerated flare adds to the film’s substance and structure. All this stylized action is fun to watch, while Woo makes it organic and practical.
5. Even When It Doesn’t Work, Woo's Style Is Still Fascinating
With a hard-to-believe story like #FaceOff, Woo’s trademarks are visible and still fun to watch. The stand-off two-shot is present and probably the most intriguing scene in the movie, even though I personally consider the film to be a misfire.
Likewise, the spy thriller Mission Impossible 2 — which sticks out like a sore thumb from its successors — also had the John Woo trademarks, yet they feel tacked on and don't add to the story, whereas the Woo trademarks in The Killer and Hard Boiled are crucial to the overall feel of those movies. Deviating from its espionage aesthetics, the first sequel in the Mission Impossible franchise shot its way to full-on action. And yet, the motorcycle duel was undeniably cool.
Trademarks are the soul signature of a filmmaker. John Woo is a phenomenal filmmaker, and his classics will be remembered as standards for action movies. They stand alongside the first #DieHard and Michael Mann’s #Heat.
Woo may have his misfires like Mission Impossible II, but he's progressed from the experience. And he's such a unique talent that even his films that contain little to no visual trademarks, such as Red Cliff and The Crossing, still stand out as fantastic John Woo movies.