Sunday, August 15, 2010

John Woo Binge

Hand Of Death (1978) * * *

Cast: Jackie Chan, Tao Ling-Tan, James Tien, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao

Directed by John Woo

Hand Of Death is a pretty decent kung fu time killer, the story as expected isn’t much, as it revolves around the rebellion against the Manchu invasion and how to use a new kung fu technique against a traitor (Tien) Once again take my opinion with a grain of salt, I love kung fu movies, I love John Woo, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Indeed Biao has little to do, Hung wears bad dentures and Jackie Chan is merely a second fiddle to the hero in question. Hand Of Death is a curiosity than, but not necessarily a bad movie. It isn’t nearly as good as what Woo, Chan, Hung and Biao would do later but it does have some good kung fu fights, a coherent story and you can see the elements that Woo would later make down the road. Hand Of Death then sort of cheats on promising a Woo/Chan collaboration but Chan does have a decent part (Unlike 36 Crazy Fists which didn’t have him in it) that should please fans. Don’t expect Hard Boiled (Or even Hard Target) and you’ll be fine, but make no mistake this is one of the better old school kung fu flicks that wasn’t a Shaw Brother or Bruce Lee flick.

The Killer (1989) * * *1/2

Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Chu Kong, Kenneth Tsang, Shing Fui On

Directed by John Woo

Chow Yun-Fat stars as an assassin who is doublecrossed by his employers on his final mission that he takes to get reconstructive eye surgery for his blind girlfriend (Yeh) that he blinded during one of his assignments meanwhile a cop working to catch said assassin join forces with said assassin to said assassin's employers. The Killer is often celebrated as the best movie John Woo ever made and I can’t quite agree cause I like A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled more. That said this is still as satisfying and excellent as people say. Once again it all goes back to the fact that John Woo goes the extra mile to develop the characters and by creating characters we care about, the action, the comedy and the heroic bloodshed angle all mean that much more. I think the problem with reviewing a classic along the lines of The Killer that it’s a fine line between reviewing and all out ass kissing. I think the best way to solve this (aside from telling you that you should seek this out ASAP) is to just mention that this has some of the best shootouts ever filmed, as well as the fact it just has it all. The boat chase that finds a mustached Chow Yun-Fat on his mission while throwing his gun in the water and then continuing on boat to on foot on the beach to the hospital is one of my favorite action sequences I’ve ever seen. I also liked that CYF’s friend that betrays him is seen in a grey area and not in black and white evil mode, I also liked the relationship between Lee and CYF, because this is what provides the main heart of the film. The subplot with Yeh is sort of silly and hokey but near the end it makes the showdown worth fighting for. Also what is most fascinating is the Christian symbolism Woo laces his church finale with and his underlying theme of redemption despite all the carnage, indeed in a lot of ways this ends in an upbeat light. Like I said it’s hard for me to go on in a review and write about a great film without sounding like a groveling fan-boy but then again I’m huge fan of pre-2000 Woo and I only hope people seek this movie out.

A Bullet In The Head (1990) * * * *

Cast:Tony Leung, Jackie Cheung, Waise Lee, Simon Yam

Directed by John Woo

A Bullet in the Head despite it’s absurd title is a hard edged Vietnam war drama that is as brutal as it is brilliant. The story details 3 youths who get into a gang fight that ends up killing someone and so to escape the law they go to Vietnam where they get involved with a Gold smuggler and the Viet Cong. The most powerful sequence by far is when the characters are put together with American P.O.Ws and forced to shoot one another, or for that matter when Waise Lee causes Cheung brain damage in an effort to not be discovered by the Viet Cong while hiding. What is most astounding is that the characters in this movie don’t start off as necessarily bad guys, even Waise Lee, perhaps too ambitious and maybe foolish and na├»ve but overall the feeling that everything that is led up to this moment is due to circumstances that get out of hand is by far what makes this highly recommended viewing. Unfortunately A Bullet In The Head is hard to find and typically expensive, however if you can find it for rental or to buy for around 15 bucks, such is worth the price. This makes an excellent companion piece to The Deer Hunter and in many ways it’s just as good. However the movie is hard to watch due to its unrelenting nature and therefore be sure to know what you’re in for. This is a disturbing movie but one well worth seeing all the same.

Once A Thief (1991) * *

Cast:Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang

Disappointingly slow Woo-lite comic yarn about three thieves who form a love triangle while attempting to steal a painting that will set them up for life. The film only picks up in it’s finale where CYF springs to action with a not-bad action sequence. The heist scenes are especially disappointing, as Woo just doesn’t seem to know what to do with those sequences. Indeed in comparison to Johnny Handsome in which Walter Hill filmed the heists with such an unbelievable rhythm, Woo unfortunately fails to find the right tone during these scenes and it comes across as forced. Indeed you know something is wrong when you want Woo to just get it over with rather than being thrilled by what you’re watching. Another big problem is that this material feels experimental and therefore Woo will plays around with various ideas but never quite hones in on the right tone he needs to establish. Indeed this had potential but I think Woo needed Jackie Chan to bring his comic set pieces to life.

Hard Boiled (1992) * * * *

Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung ,Teresa Mo, Phillip Chan, Phillip Kwok, Anthony Wong

Directed by John Woo

This is John Woo’s best movie tied with A Better Tomorrow. John Woo peaked here and never captured the same magic (Though he did come close with Red Cliff) Chow Yun-Fat stars as Tequila a bad ass cop who finds himself joining forces with an undercover cop to fight triads who have taken over a hospital. I wish John Woo was allowed to let loose like this in the U.S. Hard Boiled is the real deal, it has the best action sequences of all time (seriously the dirt bike battle is the best shoot out I’ve ever seen) and Chow Yun-Fat's Tequila is up there with Popeye Doyle, Stanley White and Dirty Harry as one of the biggest bad ass cops of all time. Hard Boiled also doesn’t skimp on the character development or story which ultimately elevates this above all cop thrillers. Indeed the only tragic part of Hard Boiled, is that many refuse to see this because it has subtitles. It of course is their loss. I think the next thing I have to address is Hong Kong cinema in general, where as the U.S had some of this grit in the 80s and early 90s, It’s just so refreshing to see Woo not cramped by quick edits and ADD cameramen. Indeed after sitting through Woo’s later work in Mission Impossible 2 and Paycheck one is only saddened by how Woo can’t even be allowed to direct what he wants to direct. Indeed Red Cliff shows that Woo still has it and being that he’s made the best made for TV pilot I’ve ever seen (Blackjack which I enjoyed, but such praise isn’t saying much) shows that Woo has it. Hard Boiled is how an action flick should be,  coherent action sequences, characters you care about and a character driven story. It’s hard to believe Hollywood seems to misuse such a master in action cinema.

Hard Target (1993) * * *

Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, Arnold Vosloo, Wilford Brimley, Kasi Lemmons

Directed by John Woo

John Woo joins forces with Van Damme and the results are decent but neither director or actor are at their best. For instance Van Damme has done better with Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Universal Soldier (And Double Impact if I’m honest) but this is better than Nowhere To Run. As for John Woo, this wasn’t his worst movie before or after. (Once A Thief was worse) However as it is stated this stands as one of Woo’s better Hollywood movies. Mainly because he was allowed to actually film coherent action sequences, do at least 70% of his thing and pack a brutal punch. (Hard Target is ultimately to this date, Van Damme’s most blood thirsty effort to date…and it’s been 17 years) Indeed this is a film that was merely adequate when it came out but has aged very well. Mainly because action films today tend to be so weak. The graveyard sequence in particular is exciting and the finale is despite what detractors say one of Woo’s best show stoppers. The problem is, Woo’s heroic bloodshed angle doesn’t coincide very well with Van Damme’s 80s action persona so it ends up feeling like a cross between which ultimately feels like just a standard Hollywood action flick for it’s time. That said Hard Target is worth seeing for the action alone and for the fact that Lance Henriksen makes for a great villain, Vosloo provides good back up and Van Damme is at his best. Indeed the only weak part is Butler who is just terrible. It is then sort of disappointment and praise I heap on Hard Target and it’s because I liked it, when I wanted to love it. However I don’t even tend to like Woo’s new films nowadays.

Broken Arrow (1996) * ½

Cast:John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Howie Long, Delroy Lindo

Directed by John Woo

John Woo turns into John Woeful in this sort of Die Hard rip off, sort of Fail-Safe rip off all tedious action movie. In a blatantly dull action flick that takes forever to get started and doesn’t have a decent villain, a plot that makes sense on any dramatic level and a movie full of mindless plot threads that would set the tone for the Michael Bay and Jan De Bonts of our time. Now to be fair Woo does stage a pretty impressive action sequence near the end but by then it’s too little too late. Meanwhile while some shootouts have some moments of excitement it is all ruined by absurd lapses of logic (such as anyone being able to survive while the nuke go off  underground, or for that matter how Travolta would know to rig the nuke to make it go off if someone punched the wrong codes in.) Another problem is Travolta who makes for a ridiculous villain. Apparently ticked off at the military for passing him up on promotions, one would understand such motivations if he was fired or for that matter his country tried to kill him, however nuking the country because of how he’s pissed off about promotions is pretty laughable to say the least. At least I can understand greed as motivator. There is more that is wrong, mainly how Mathis is able to stand tall and fight mercenaries when she is just a park ranger. Slater fares well here (probably the best) but it would’ve probably been more fun to see him as the bad guy and Travolta as the good guy. Mainly because Travolta’s character is so whiny and silly, when says "Yeah, ain't it cool" to Slater when Slater accuse him of being out of his mind isso over the top in its stupidity it sets the tone for the film. . The ridiculous nature of the film didn’t bother me, the lack of action, character development and lack of excitement was what renders this film broken.

John Woo’s Once A Thief (1996) *

Cast: Sandrine Holt, Ivan Sergei, Nicolas Lea, Michael Wong, Robert Ito

Utterly terrible remake of a mediocre Woo movie surfaces in this inane made for TV movie that doesn’t even deliver the action required. Anyway this time there is an agency that hires our three heroes (One a jailbird forced out of jail, his girlfriend and her new ex-cop lover) to take on their adopted brother (Wong) There really isn’t much that can be said about this mindlessly awful TV movie. The comedy is so forced it borders on rape and the action sequences are badly staged, lamely directed and totally not Woo-like. Indeed this awful flick has sort of a following which is something one doesn’t understand. Among the 90210 inspired soap opera and the old Once A Thief failed premise the movie comes together to be the worst movie John Woo had made to date. Indeed one figures that Woo made Blackjack to make up for this stink-bomb, Blackjack while not Woo’s best is miles ahead better than this.

Face/Off (1997) * * *1/2

Cast: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Nick Cassavetes, Dominque Swain,Colm Feore, Robert Wisdom, CCH Pounder, Margaret Cho

Directed by John Woo

John Woo’s style finally clicks in the Hollywood style as he takes an absurd science fiction premise and manages to make this into one of the most enjoyable “bigger is better” movies with big explosions and slam bang action. What works this time is that Face/Off actually adds shading to even secondary characters making this is one of the few 90s classics. Face/Off ‘s story revolves around FBI agent Sean Archer (Travolta) capturing and almost killing Castor Troy (Cage) who is some kind of terrorist, how Troy has planted a bomb somewhere and Archer has to switch faces with him to get the information where such bomb was hidden, unfortunately Troy wakes up from the coma and forces the doctors to give him Archer’s face. So now Archer (with Troy’s face) has to fight back against Troy, meanwhile both guys turn out to be better fathers for their counterpart’s kids. Face/Off is a great movie because it does have action and a really ridiculous story and that adds to its cheese factor. Indeed, the metal boots upon Alcatraz fight sequence walks the fine line between excitement and hysterical camp. Indeed the entire film walks the fine line and while the film isn’t quite 4 star material this film works as well at grind-house action more so than Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s films that year. Indeed the film is often times brutal and satisfying in its punch of action and while John Woo clearly doesn’t treat the subject with as much welcome humor that such a premise would call for, there is no denying that Face/Off is one of the few big budget blockbusters that doesn’t suck. In fact it holds it’s own against the classics of the action genre and that says a lot. Meanwhile Nicolas Cage is fares far better than he did in The Rock. (Although Con-Air wasn’t too shabby either.) All in all Face/Off is John Woo’s best American effort and well worth revisiting as the years gone by adds to the guilty pleasure vibe. Face/Off then is both a classic for the right and wrong reasons.

Blackjack (1998)  
* * *

Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Fred Williamson, Kate Vernon, Saul Rubinek, Kam Heskin, Phillip Mackenzie

Directed by John Woo

John Woo’s second attempt at a made for TV action flick is merely decent which makes it a big improvement over the execrable Once A Thief TV remake of his mediocre original. John Woo gets a lot of the best moments from veteran talents Lundgren, Williamson, Rubinek and Vernon who all make the concept work better than you would expect. Of course the main flaw Woo cannot overcome is in fact that Blackjack is a made for TV movie, which means the action, story, and carnage level all stay at the level of that. Plus add in a ridiculous element involving Dolph’s color phobia and you have all the marks of a disaster in the making. Blackjack then is a testament to John Woo’s talent, for he somehow adequately pulls it off and as long as one suspends belief, Blackjack doesn’t offend. That said fans of the star and director will probably like this but this stands as not neither Woo or Lundgren’s best. Although in Lundgren’s case, at least it’s better than the Abominable Fallen Knight. All in all though it's pretty good.

Mission Impossible 2 (2000) *

Cast: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames, Anthony Hopkins

Directed by John Woo

Terrible sequel that proves Woo simply has lost his magic touch since crossing the ocean. The plot (if you can call it that) revolves around Ethan Hunt (Cruise) trying to keep a deadly virus out of the evil hands of super villain Dougray Scott. Thandie Newton plays the love interest in a meaningless role (Woo never was good with romance angles) The film comes together with all the coherency of a puzzle with 80% of the pieces gone. It has no beginning, it has no ending, it just is a big glob of interchangeable action sequences and absurd plot threads. What is most disappointing is how Woo’s usually skilled craftsmanship in action is clearly on autopilot. In fact you know you’re in trouble when the slow motion and weird camera angles cause people to laugh (Like when Cruise and Scott hit each other in the air) Mission Impossible 2 is just a debacle on all fronts and it was hard to sit through it. Indeed this is where Woo renounced his throne as king of action. A terrible movie and what signified the beginning of the end for Woo. As for Cruise he looks utterly terrible with his shaggy cut and pretty boy looks and short and slender stature makes for a laughable hero. Indeed he is clearly trying too hard, which is weird cause Cruise usually works in such a role. In anycase avoid it, skip ahead to Red Cliff. This kicks off Woo’s dead zone.

Windtalkers (2002) * *

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater,Roger Willie, Brian Van Holt

Directed by John Woo

Mission Impossible II was terrible; Windtalkers on the other hand is merely mediocre and disappointing. There is potential here in the story about the Native Americans who deciphered codes and sent codes that helped in our efforts in World War II, And with John Woo’s Bullet In The Head (and Red Cliff a few years later) Windtalkers held a lot of promise and unfortunately the results are average at best. The problem here is that there is too many secondary characters and plot threads as the film jumps back and forth between Cage and Beach’s relationship and Slater and Willie’s battle sequences. Basically this disjointed effort falls apart because it devotes too much time to the plot threads making it feel undernourished and half baked. The battle scenes are okay but one gets the feeling Woo had to sacrifice character development to make this 2 hours. It’s not really worth seeing but Woo fans might enjoy it.

Red Cliff (2009) * * * 1/2

Cast:Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Cheng, Wei Zhao

Directed by John Woo

John Woo returns with a historical recount of China’s three kingdom period, in which the rebels join forces with two kingdoms to fight a cruel king looking to establish power and hence military strategies are implied and it all comes down to the way the wind blows on the night of an attack. Red Cliff is actually combined from Red Cliff 1 and Red Cliff 2, the truth is I recommend this cut just as much as I’ll probably recommend 1-2 (I have to get a hold of them first) This is sort of like a Shogun Assassin styled  combining of two movies which ultimately becomes a different movie all together. Indeed why they did this cut is unknown but I can assure you I want to get my hands on Red Cliff 1-2. However despite all that Red Cliff is an excellent movie. In fact one wonders where has this Woo been? I mean I started to get scared after his various work that he might’ve lost his touch after the last 11 years of putting out uninspired hackwork. Indeed Blackjack which wasn’t great shakes all of a sudden was coming up in many conversations as to “John Woo hasn’t made a watchable movie since Blackjack” which really depressed me considering that was only decent. Thankfully I can now have a movie that I can bring up in conversation when someone says Woo is lame. In fact Red Cliff is extremely well made and the battle sequences are some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in any genre. It’s nice to see Woo can be this great when he is given the opportunity. I think my only disappointment was the lack of Chow Yun-Fat but really I have to get my hands on Red Cliff 1 and Red Cliff 2, because I’m almost certain those are 4 star movies, I review this because I think it’s a different movie all together. If anything else though it’s nice to see John Woo in good form again and perhaps it’s for the best that Woo stay in his country if he keeps making movies this good. I mean this holds its own against Woo’s heroic bloodshed output and that is high praise.


  1. Personally I liked i-2 alot better thne the first film, which had one too many twists and plot holes for it's own good, Face/Off actually happens to be my all time faovrite action film(though Hard Boiled come spretty damn close), can't think of one single complaint that I have about that film. The Once A Thief remake was pretty average, not great but not terrible either IMO, also i'm surprised that you weren't too fond of Borken Arrow, as I remember that you gave it 3 stars on your old site, guess you changed your opinion on it.

  2. Yep...with Broken Arrow I Rewatched it. (As that one went by notes) It was very dull, I wasn't like Hard Target that I thought was even better than I thought. Broken Arrow really if you go back and watch, really doesn't have much action. Travolta is a really, really, really terrible actor. I saw Broken Arrow when I was younger and thought the mine scene was great...but this time I was more blown away by the absurdity of such. It just wasn't as good as I remembered. I actually rewatched all the films again (My Woo notes were lame. It took me 2 weeks or so...I even rewatched Blackjack, which I already had a review but such stayed relatively the same. Really the only thing that changed was my thought of Broken Arrow. I will admit the train showdown was great though...just trust me though there really isn't that much action.

    MI2 was painful, I hoped such would be funny due to time but it wasn't. Once A Thief was just as lame. Face/Off I actually enjoyed more than when I saw it (but not quite enough to give it a 4 star rating) Hard Target the same deal, though not enough to give it 3.5 stars. Blackjack went from a weak 3 star rating to a sturdy 3 star rating. Broken Arrow was the only one that just didn't do it for me.

    Although to be fair...I just watched Con Air (which is a 3 star rating, though almost 3.5) a little bit before and such was just that much more fun. And i'm not the first to change my mind...Gene Siskel himself went from a thumbs up to a thumbs down in his review.

  3. Oh I did watch Broken Arrow and I liked it quite a bit more then you did(I also Travolta's an Ok actor, I think the problem he's just not very good at playing bad guys, he was pretty good in that film he did this year-From Paris With Love, you really oughta check that one out along with Taken) the lack of action didn't bother me much, course then again maybe that's because I saw Broken Arrow long before I saw any of Woo's Hong Kong films, glad to hear you liked Con Air though, also speaking of Cage, have you considered checking out Kick Ass?) Also did you see MI:3 yet? If so did you like it any better then part 2?

  4. Man, you are definitely making up for lost time. I've been meaning to see The Red Cliff for a while. When you describe Face/Off as the DTV film that made it big, I'm not sure if I like it like that. Cyborg yes (another one you describe as such), but Face/Off has Travolta and Cage at a time when they both were commanding Big Money, No Whammies. Blackjack is more in that vein, even though it's a TV movie that made played like a DTV film instead. Maybe because it was Dolph and not Cage and Travolta, but the idea of being afraid of milk was funnier than two guys swapping faces and voices.

    I can't say enough about Hard Boiled, one of my all time faves. I'm glad you dealt with Broken Arrow. The toolish faces on the cover say it all, but sometimes it's good to vent on them as well. It's always hard to reconcile that those two films were made by the same director.

  5. Well I know what you mean...what I mean is that Face/Off is a DTV concept made on an A-list budget. I mean you think the premise can't get any nuttier and then you get the alcatraz boots. This is also a movie in which Cage has to say "Face...Off" and the finale which ends with a harpoon, and cutting of faces with a piece of sharp metal is STV. You just don't see such, maybe the better word is the grindhouse film made on a budget. I mean this could've easily been played with Planet Terror and it would fit right in. I mean at the time it felt like a big budget film but when you go back and see it years realize how wonderfully goofy it all is. Also there is Gina Gershon and Nick Cassavetes (Class Of 1999 II:The Substitute) to add to the DTV concept. I'm not sure if that made the big time is as accurate a term as Big Budget grindhouse but whatever the case, this is a concept that would've felt right at home in the 70s. Also given the mean spirited punch of the burning alive of Archer's friends is ultimately in that range.

    As for Broken Arrow...Travolta is just an awful villain (He was good in Face/Off) he looks so silly when he tries to appear menacing (no better example than when he says "Hush" to a guy he has just wacked in the throat with a lead pipe) What bothered me most was that it didn't feel like a John Woo film. Hard Target and Blackjack feel very Woo-like, Face Off the Wooiest of his American efforts. Broken Arrow though tried to show symbolism in having twenty dollars being the big punchline which was stupid. In fact everytime I engage something about Broken Arrow, I can think of something I didn't like.

    M.I.2 is a total douche chill of a movie, ugh this was horrible. The third one was okay (long and drawn out mind you, with a twist I saw coming long ways away) but better by comparison. The first one was probably the best. The second one hurt to watch.

    As for Red Cliff...I can't recommend such more. It feels as if John Woo was inspired by Ran. Woo of course is no Kurosawa but he is a genius in his own right.

    Heroes Shed No Tears was meant to be in such binge but it didn't come until yesterday (to which I watched it) and you could see the talent brewing.

  6. The thing with MI:II is that it's a bad rip-off of an amazing Hitchcock film, Notorious. It's the kind of thing that Woo could've remade really well in Hong Kong with actors like Chow Yun-Fat, but not in a big budget Hollywood style. It just loses everything that made it great.

    I can see what you mean about Face/Off, it just didn't feel like that to me. It felt dumb as all git-out, but it also felt like it was being served to us on a smarter and higher quality than your average DTV flick platter, which annoyed me.