When Western critics and audiences first made their acquaintance with Woo, the prevailing sentiment was that what they were witnessing was nothing less than the reinvention of the action film. – Manohla Dargis

It’s hard to imagine where action cinema would be today without John Woo. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, he introduced Western mass audiences to the visual language of Hong Kong cinema. Before he had even made a sync-sound film, he was a favorite of Tarantino and Scorsese. His migration to Hollywood opened the door for Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, and many other Hong Kong natives. He helped kick off of the trend towards kung-fu and wuxia style action in Hollywood, without which the extraordinary choreography of The Matrix trilogy and the frantic cheesiness of both Kill Bills would have been incomprehensible. In fact, when one begins to trace the way characters wasted one another on screen over the last twenty years, it becomes clear that the mid-nineties Hong Kong explosion onto the American scene radically changed the visual language of Western action cinema.

Actually, I hate violence, I hate it. – John Woo

In interviews, Woo speaks often of his youth in the slums, and of how he used American movies as an escape from the ugliness and violence of that life. Hard-Boiled, like many of Woo’s films, seems to be crafted of artillery and gore with multiple layers of nostalgia and sentimentality. Between anguished, gurgling death howls, we hear echoes of Tequila’s mournful jazz saxophone. Throughout the film, as Tequila and Tony become close friends and destroy a massive illegal weapons ring, Woo often interrupts scenes with still frames and slow motion, dissolves from scene to scene, and allows sound from one scene to overlay another. These devices suggest memory and flashback, as if the viewers should memorialize the men even while they are still living.

Using past-tense techniques to evoke sentimental feelings from an otherwise cartoonishly violent film is hardly the only trick Woo has up his sleeve when it comes to transforming the pain of real death into the pleasure of fake death. From Tony producing a planted gun from the Complete Works of Shakespeare to gun down a traitor to the outdated wuxia qualities of chivalry, morality, and chastity that Tequila embodies, Woo makes damn sure the viewer knows that his film, catastrophically bloody as it may be, is steeped in both Western and Eastern literary tradition. Most importantly, Tony and Tequila’s affection for one another, as well as the dozens of babies whose plight becomes the focal point for the final firefight, allow Woo to showcase the innocence and loyalty threatened by the surrounding violence.

Generally, the characters run or leap from the fire, but sometimes they float in front of, or even sail through it, much as the wicked witch is tossed along in that Kansas tornado. – Manohla Dargis

Knowing he was raised on a diet of Classical Hollywood cinema, if one was to guess John Woo’s favorite movie, what would it be? The Wild Bunch? Dirty Harry? No, indeed. It’s The Wizard of Oz.

As a result, his films allow for an unlikely, and somewhat unholy, pairing of conventions from the action and musical genres. Never before was it so apparent that a burst of gunfire and a sudden bursting into song served such similar narrative purposes. In fact, both genres rely on spectacle for spectacle’s sake, frequently interrupting a simple, dramatic narrative with rhythmic, highly choreographed interludes. Both the musical number and the gun battle reach the viewer on a much deeper, more reactive level than traditional drama. However, neither brings the plot to a complete and total halt. At the end of a musical number, the characters make an important decision. At the end of a gun battle, the survivors are left to advance their agendas, unhindered by their enemies. Best of all, both types of spectacle force us to acknowledge the un-reality of what we are watching. Just as an elaborate song and dance routine acknowledges the performative nature of cinema, so does a sequence in which a welder perched in the corner of the frame continues his work, as scores of armed gunmen on motorcycles ride into a warehouse, blowing away everyone in sight. After all, if the welder were to dive for cover or fire back, sparks would cease to shower down on the masked riders.

Whereas it’s easy to mistake Woo’s blatant disregard for logic for sloppy writing, it is in fact one of the hallmarks of his style. It serves as little purpose to wonder how Tony keeps an accurate enough count of the people he’s killed to make a paper crane for each one, or to question why a man on a motorcycle would intentionally perform a flying stunt directly above a man with a shotgun, as it does to ask why Gene Kelly would sing about singing in the rain. If these were character-driven stories (as are most mainstream films), things would happen as a result of the characters’ desires, their emotions, their pathologies. In musicals and John Woo movies, this is not the case. Things happen simply because we’re watching.

Movies act as a bridge which draws together everybody’s heart. Through movies we learn about the beauty among us. I want to make movies to the end. – John Woo

For many, Hard-Boiled marks the end of true Woo. Puzzling as it may be, this most American of Chinese directors did his best work in Hong Kong, in spite of the fact that he considered himself something of an outsider there, too un-Chinese. So before you worry about how Chow Yun-Fat leaps several stories from a burning building, holding onto an electrical cable in one hand and a baby in the other, and ends up intact, holding a completely unharmed baby, keep in mind that this is Woo at his best. Without him, our action stars would still be forced to shoot with both feet planted firmly on the ground, and cop movies would still be afraid of their emotions.

Caitlin Written by: