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Why Hong Kong's biggest action stars are now making Hollywood hits

Ty Burr says this summer marks a breakthrough for the best in Asian cinema

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Why Hong Kong’s biggest action stars are now making Hollywood hits

Finally, Hong Kong has conquered Hollywood. It just took longer than it was supposed to.

When you consider that the golden years of the Hong Kong film industry ran arguably, from the early ’80s to the mid ’90s, and when you realize that directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark and stars like Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li were doing their best HK work in the years leading up to the 1997 handover of the colony to the People’s Republic of China — well, the question is why weren’t these visionaries absorbed into American filmmaking more quickly?

The easy answer is xenophobia: They’re foreigners. Granted, that matters more for the actors, who have had to master the English language and compete against Anglo stars in an Anglo market, but even the directors were typecast when they first hit Hollywood. Because most HK cinema isn’t so much real as hyperreal — with balletic fights that bounce off the ceiling, heroes sliding down banisters shooting two guns at once, and sexy ghosts popping up in the oddest of places — the films have been limited in the U.S. to a cult audience that doesn’t mind suspending its disbelief if the movie pays off in the end. And the directors have been typecast as action stalwarts: Woo, Hark, and Ringo Lam all got their stateside start directing Jean Claude Van Damme movies.

Woo has been the first to break out: 1997’s ”Face/Off” was the debut Hollywood movie that A) featured A-level American stars and B) took place in a recognizably kinetic Woo-ian universe. It was a hit, too, and that mattered, especially to the guys in the executive offices. Now comes ”Mission: Impossible 2” — or ”M:I-2” as we’re absurdly and officially supposed to call it — and the word is that this sequel outdoes the Brian DePalma original almost exclusively due to Woo’s directorial magic.

There have been other breakthroughs. Jackie Chan, the little kung-fu engine who could, seems poised to build upon his previous successes with ”Shanghai Noon.” After 20 years of trying, Chan has finally made enough of an impact on U.S. audiences that he can open a film (AND host ”Saturday Night Live”) pretty much on his own (costar Owen Wilson? Who?s he?). Michelle Yeoh was the best thing about ”Tomorrow Never Dies.” And Jet Li was the highlight of ”Lethal Weapon 4.” And now they’re making larger impacts on the American consciousness, Li in ”Romeo Must Die” and Yeoh in Ang Lee’s upcoming homage to HK action, ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Chow Yun-Fat is in the latter film too, and maybe this will finally make him the Asian Cary Grant he deserves to be but hasn’t been able to pull off in films like ”The Replacement Killers” and ”Anna and the King.”

All we need now is for Blockbuster to start stocking the classics — HK originals like Woo’s ”A Better Tomorrow” or Jet Li’s ”Fong Sai Yuk” or Tsui Hark’s hilarious ”Peking Opera Blues,” and the revolution will be complete. Unless, God forbid, Hollywood gets the bright idea of remaking all these gems with Freddie Prinze Jr.