Well before john Woo got his first U.S. directing assignment, word was out: Something amazing was happening in Hong Kong, and one guy was at the bloody edge of it. When Quentin Tarantino put that guns-to-the-head standoff in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, that was pure Woo, percolating down through a video-store know-it-all into the mainstream movie discourse. In L.A. and New York City theaters during the early 1990s, Hong Kong movie fests disseminated the gospel of Woo (and Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam and Jackie Chan), and you’d better believe there were young filmmakers and advertising brats in those audiences, soaking up the whip pans and white doves. This was Peckinpah’s poetry of violence turned into a free-form Kerouac rant.
Woo’s HK classics—A Better Tomorrow (1986) and its 1987 sequel, 1989’s The Killer, Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992), all on DVD and all essential viewing—flushed out the cholesterol clogging the arteries of action films by fusing them with genres that American audiences had learned to distrust. They’re musicals where the hero shoots instead of sings, and women’s weepies where the moonstruck lovers are men with guns. Check out Hard Boiled if you don’t believe me (it’s available from Winstar in a nifty double-disc set with The Killer, complete with director’s commentary on both discs; look, too, for out-of-print Criterion DVDs of both films). The relationship between cops Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung is pure Joan Crawford and John Garfield in its masochistic intensity, and the climactic attack on the hospital is as eye-popping as any Busby Berkeley production number (if a tad more sanguine).
Woo’s American-made films have been problematic. Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) is the DVD with all the making-of extras, but it’s also the film where the director’s patented imagery has the dull ring of cliché; 1997’s demented Face/Off is a far more successful mating of Hollywood brawn and crazy HK grace. The struggle, it seems, is no longer between John Travolta’s cop and Nicolas Cage’s killer, but between Cantonese poetry and Burbank prose.