John Woo: The Films. – Review

John Woo: The Films. – Review – book review

Tony Williams

John Woo The Films By Kenneth E. Hall. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 1999. $45.00.

Firmly situated within the Hollywood system as long as his films make money, John Woo can now see his current status as action film director assured. But the label is both limited and inaccurate. Ken Hall’s work is the first book-length study on the director based upon detailed research as well as personal interviews with Woo himself, business partner Terence Chang, and actors Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloo, Kasi Lemmons, and Chuck Pfarrer, as well as phone and fax interviews with others such as Joan Allen, Willie Carpenter, Philip Kwok, Christian Slater, and John Travolta. The amount of time and effort Hall devoted to discovering important factual information is laudable.

However, the limited number of pages (247) given to this study contrasts unfavorably with the more generous allowance given to studies by authors such as Edmund G. Bansak and Garry Yoggy. Apparently, the economics of contemporary publishing are largely to blame for only a brief treatment of certain pre-1986 Woo films such as The Young Dragons (1973), Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1978), and Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982). But despite the need for a detailed interrogation of other key early works such as the director’s Cantonese opera production Princess Chang Ping (1976) and his Ricky Hui comedies such as Money Crazy (1977) and From Riches to Rags (1979), Hall has provided a promising stimulus for future studies in this area.

Well versed in Western and Chinese literary and cinematic traditions, Hall opens his study with a consideration of Woo’s relationship to this diverse field. The director’s world view not only encompasses classic Chinese works such as The Water Margin and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as well as Japanese bushido concepts, but also cinematic traditions appearing in the works of Martin Scorsese, Samuel Fuller, Francis Coppola, Chang Cheh, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, and Jean-Pierre Melville. Although Woo often acknowledges the influence of other directors on his work, his usage never approaches the derivative methodology of lesser talents within the Hollywood system. As Hall comments, “Woo’s quotation of directors and films is relatively limited or at most not particularly conscious. Instead, he may parallel the work of a director or actor, or he may independently achieve a result that looks like another director’s work. This fact explains why Woo is not like some of his imitators, or why he is not like directors who self-consciously quote others’ work: this is what saves him, too, from being campy” (33). For example, although Woo cites a scene from The Shining in The Killer, he reworks it in a creatively transformative manner to provide different meanings. Woo uses the blood reference from The Shining to visualize Jenny’s “subjective perception and memory of her blinding” (118) in a different dimensional perspective from that of Kubrick. Also, Woo has cited Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train “as a model for developing and sustaining suspense while not losing narrative and visual fluidity” (51), an influence which appeared in Face/Off’s opening carousel sequence–derived from a screenplay written before Woo’s involvement in the project but one he developed during the course of filming.

Hall definitively challenges many critical and popular misconceptions concerning Woo’s work as well as misappropriations by lesser talents. Woo is not a slavish parodist. “Those who perceive such a man as a parodist (in the usual sense) are feeding his films with their own prejudices. Probably they see the Tarantino in Woo instead of what they should see, the vestiges of Woo in Tarantino. Woo is not Tarantino; he does not appropriate only to parody” (117). Instead, the director creatively explores and develops Eastern and Western traditions he is familiar with. Hall’s second chapter deals with these features, while his third correctly takes issue with those who see Woo exclusively as an action director. Rather, Hall elaborates Woo’s use of spatial and temporal perception as well as his stylistic use of “alternately tracking shots, rack focus, triangular set-ups and violation of continuity” used in an intelligently “conscious and aware manner” (71). Hall also supplies some revealing information, such as noting the centrality of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle rouge (as well as Le Samourai) to The Killer as well as tracing its debt to a little-known, but influential, 1964 Toei production, Narazumono (starring Takakura Ken and Testuro Tanba). Woo also acknowledges Michael Mann’s Manhunter as another film inspiring The Killer.

Overall, the chapters dealing with the Better Tomorrow films, The Killer, Bullet in the Head, and Hard Boiled are the most critically informative in the book. But films such as Once a Thief, Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off need more detailed analytic treatment. Here Hall tends to overemphasize his empirical research methods (interviews with production personnel) and his discovery of an earlier Face/Off screenplay draft (that reveals the early life of Castor Troy as echoing that of Cody Jarrett in White Heat) to the detriment of intensive critical analysis. However, the limitations are more than offset by the interesting production information Hall offers to his readers. For example, most of the production personnel who worked with Woo on his Hollywood films spoke highly of him, even when the subject matter involved compromised works such as Hard Target. Characteristically, Jean-Claude Van Damme (who bears a high degree of responsibility for problems affecting this film) refused to be interviewed for this book, an attitude contrasting with those many individuals who freely cooperated, both directly and indirectly, with Hall. Ken Hall’s brief final chapter is titled “The End of the Beginning.” It mentions Woo’s future projects as well as the hope that Hollywood will allow him the necessary freedom to develop and grow as artist and filmmaker. The book is introductory, but highly informative with excellent footnotes, bibliography, and listing of Woo’s films in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Despite needing a more detailed approach, it is still essential reading for anyone seriously interested in a director now attempting to link two different national cinematic traditions in a manner akin to Fritz Lang many decades ago.

Tony Williams teaches in the English Department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

COPYRIGHT 2000 University of California Press

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