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John Woo: Cult favorite

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John Woo directs movies that make the Lethal Weapon series look like Barney videos. The Hong Kong filmmaker is making his American directorial debut with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target, but you can get a preview of his deliriously ballistic style by renting one of his earlier action classics, films with titles like The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head, and Hard Boiled. A scene from the latter epitomizes the Woo style: Ultracool cop Tequila (played by Chow Yun Fat, Hong Kong’s answer to Clint Eastwood) slidesdown a banister at top speed while pumping bullets from two automatic pistols into the villains while keeping a toothpick perfectly poised in the corner of his mouth. He’s saving that to spit in the face of the gang’s leader a few minutes later, just before blowing him away.

Somewhat startlingly, Woo is extremely polite and humble in person, happily overwhelmed by the applause he has received from the likes of Martin Scorsese (”One of my idols,” Woo says) and delighted to be working in America. He admits the rules are different here: While his Hong Kong films often center on alliances forged between criminal and cop against a common enemy, Hard Target‘s focus is entirely on star Jean-Claude Van Damme. ”I missed using the theme of a friendship between two people who work in different ways and yet come together,” Woo notes. ”For Hard Target, I took the approach of trying to make a modern Western.”

Members of Woo’s American cult won’t be getting the director at 100 proof with Hard Target. Violence had to be cut to avoid an NC-17 rating, and much of what gives Woo’s work its distinctive signature — intricate choreography, razor-sharp editing, and frequent use of freeze-frames — apparently didn’t go down well with the mall rats at prerelease screenings. ”During previews, young people weren’t used to my style,” Woo says, retaining an undampened enthusiasm.

And well he should — offers are flooding in. Hot screenwriter-director Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) is working on a script for Woo that could bring the charismatic Chow Yun Fat to America. And, having been impressed with the dedication of Hard Target‘s technicians, Woo hopes to team a U.S. crew with his Hong Kong stalwarts to make a historical Chinese epic.

As for whether the Woo touch can survive Hollywood, the director is guardedly optimistic: ”I try to put more humor and more humanity in my films. I want audiences to come see my movies for more than the action. I try my best to keep my own style and character. Even though I wasn’t able to do it in Hard Target completely, I still hope I can do it in my future films. I really don’t want to lose my style.”

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