After waxing poetic about John Woo’s talent for the last month, it may surprise you to learn that I consider his later career an embarrassing falloff from his Hong Kong prime. That such sad declines are all-too-common among directors (and actors, and authors, and painters, and musicians) doesn’t make it any easier a pill to swallow. I miss young John Woo almost as much as I miss young Steven Spielberg, and I don’t make that comparison lightly.
Part of Woo’s problem was the advent of American special effects capable of mimicking, with a few mouse clicks, the previously unique style he pioneered via endlessly inventive cinematography and editing. Soon anyone could make what at least superficially looked like a John Woo movie, and they saturated the market with mediocre simulacra of his imagery until it felt old and tired. This is what I suspect Werner Herzog once meant when he condemned the “worn-out images” which imperil our civilization’s collective imagination “because of the inability of too many people to seek out fresh ones.”
Then there was Woo’s catastrophic loss of creative control, resulting from his move to Hollywood soon after he finished Hard Boiled. He once wearily explained his momentous decision to abandon his homeland in this way:
I had been working in Hong Kong so many years, and creatively I felt limited and needed to grow and change. It was an extremely commercial place. All the movies were commercial and entertaining. Action movies and comedies were mainstream, and it was hard to do anything else. Artistic films did not have an audience, and political topics you could not touch.
Given his affinity for American movies and Western sensibilities, Woo found much to like in his newly adopted home. “I felt comfortable right away. When we came to Hollywood I found the people in this country were very kind, polite and respectful. It is a very open country. They are all reaching out their hands to the new talent no matter where you are from. They wanted me to bring my style to their Western movies.” Woo loved the Hollywood crew on his first movie here, Hard Target, and they returned his admiration. However, the demands of both the studio and that lord among thespians, Jean-Claude Van Damme, drove him to despair:
I never knew that the star had so much control over the script, over the co-star. . . Sam [Raimi] and Jim [Jacks] wanted me to make the film in my style, but somebody else wanted me to make Hard Target an action movie, and somebody else wanted me to tone down the violence. People told me than an American hero is not supposed to have flaws and he never cries in a film. He’s a perfect guy. And I thought, wow, that’s kind of boring.
With Hard Boiled in Hong Kong, Woo had crowned his reputation with a movie that, to this very day, remains arguably the most blistering action movie of all time. But with Hard Target in the States — made only a year later! — the MPAA’s passel of clueless, tin-pot bureaucrats forced him to cut his picture seven times just to get an R rating. Chow Yun-fat remembers Woo’s frustration: “They told him that, if he shoots five people in this scene, then he can only shoot two people in the next scene. He cannot kill seven people in one scene and then another seven people right afterward!”
In other words, the American studios courted the singular talent of John Woo — and then refused to allow him to make a John Woo movie.
It’s not that he hasn’t been successful in Hollywood. Hard Target made $33 million, Broken Arrow $70 million, and Face/Off — where he finally had director’s cut — earned an impressive $112 million at the domestic box office. But the growing artistic malaise was palpable. By the time his Mission: Impossible 2 raked in $215 million in 2000, Woo’s films had become, to my mind at least, virtually indistinguishable from the work of the average American music-video director. The world-weary gravitas of Chow Yun-fat had been replaced by the empty-headed pseudo-machismo of pampered and coiffed metro-sexual pretty boys like Christian Slater, John Travolta, and (most egregious of all) Tom Cruise, while Woo’s ever-present themes — familial, moral, spiritual — faded under the glare of the Tinseltown klieg lights until they shrunk down to mere stylistic affectations, as moving and genuine as, say, Madonna sporting a crucifix with her concert dominatrix outfits. Most of his later output — a list that includes Windtalkers (2002), Paycheck (2003), and some TV stuff — is a pale shadow of the things that brought me to Woo in the first place.
Thankfully, we live at a time when foreign films are more accessible than ever before, giving us ample opportunity to look at old movies and remind ourselves how brightly those old Hong Kong gems still glow. “If some people see only the action,” Woo once said about his Heroic Bloodshed movies, “I say, fine. But I think if they look, they’ll see more. . . it’s also about me, about what I believe.” There was a time — as an ideologically lonely student in an intellectually stimulating but virulently leftist film school — when I cared deeply about what exactly a movie like Hard Boiled revealed John Woo to believe. It was the kind of movie that I could sense was buttressing my own worldview, even if I didn’t have the words to express why or how.
So what does Woo truly believe, anyway? In his interview with Woo that closes Between the Bullets: The Spiritual Cinema of John Woo, author Michael Bliss leads us to an answer:
Do you think that the traditional values that you cherish — such as honor, devotion, religion, family — aren’t very popular anymore?
“Yes. It seems that many people have lost them. I think it is my duty to bring all of these things back, these things that people have lost.”
With that in mind, would it be fair to say that more than anything else, you’re a religious director?
“Yes. I’d agree with that.”
The traditional values championed so energetically by John Woo should be of intense interest to conservative film lovers. Hard Boiled and its brethren stand virtually alone in modern times as cinematic defenders of what might loosely be described as Christian warriors — flawed heroes (and, in many cases, villains) who eschew cynicism and nihilism for moral codes based on ancient Bible-derived notions of righteousness and chivalry. Michael Bliss makes a wonderfully perceptive remark about Hard Boiled in his book when he mentions Woo’s cameo in the film (italics mine): “Woo plays a former cop, Mr. Woo, who runs the jazz bar, which functions as a haven of aesthetics in the midst of this brutal cops and criminals universe. In this church-like sanctuary, Woo acts as a secular priest.” That’s a revelation that hit me right between the eyes, and something that even Woo himself probably didn’t realize he was doing.
“I’m most influenced by the values of Jesus Christ,” Woo maintains in interviews. “Loving one’s neighbor, forgiveness, patience, kindness, charity.” That statement might seem laughable in light of the incredible amount of raw mayhem that drenches pictures like Hard Boiled blood-red, but Woo is adamant: “I am a Christian. I am strongly influenced by my religion. The church really means a lot to me.” In this Tarantino/Rodriguez-dominated age of treating every symbol and idea as just more grist for their pop-culture mishmash films, it’s refreshing to see Woo daring us to take his explosive action movies seriously. He’s unabashedly inviting a rigorous analysis of the Christian ethics on display in his pictures.
Consider what a film like Hard Boiled asks the viewer. What happens to those peaceful Christian values when they come face-to-face with a thoroughly evil, heartless, murderous, and implacable enemy? What part of that noble and beautiful moral structure gives way, and what replaces it? Is the result still Christian, or only a perilously perverted doppelganger? These are the kinds of questions that continually arise in thoughtful conservative minds whenever one watches A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled.
“I believe the good people always win,” says Woo. “At the same time, we have to understand each other and know the good and bad in all of us. I think that came from my Christian education.” Woo forces his protagonists to navigate their way through spiritual minefields, in a quest to achieve some semblance of morality in a world seemingly bereft of it. “In my movies,” explains Woo, “the hero must conquer his own inner battle between good and evil before he can win the outward battle with the ‘real’ enemy.” That he manages to bring brutal gangsters, self-assured assassins, and trigger-happy rogue cops (each with prodigious amounts of blood on their hands) through hails of bullets and piles of corpses to that spiritual place (and in stories filled with such mesmerizing imagery and visual poetry) is remarkable.
Hard Boiled has more death and destruction in it than any number of American action films, but strangely enough it manages to remain far more morally defensible and intriguing. The issues it raises aren’t just cheap plot points — Woo’s unflinching depiction of the eternal battle between good and evil gives his spiritual themes real teeth. For example, Hard Boiled sports a triad godfather who can’t bring himself to keep up with the demented younger generation of crooks, most of whom long ago abandoned the old code of mafia ethics he grew up with — and he pays for his conscience with his life.
Woo allows another likable villain — the crowd favorite, no less, the cool-as-hell Boba Fett of the movie — to come to an abrupt end at the hands of his merciless boss after refusing to gun down a crowd of innocents. And not only does this deliciously audience-pleasing character die, so do the innocents. On the surface, this seems quite cruel of Woo, almost an expression of anti-heroism: the deaths of the defenseless bystanders seem to render the villain’s noble sacrifice meaningless. We lament that Woo doesn’t even leave anyone behind to respect or memorialize the heroic action we witnessed, until we realize that it is we who are meant to know and remember what happened, that it is our own sense of decency and values that’s been awakened along with the martyred villain’s.
Like I said, Woo delivers spiritual themes with real teeth.
Meanwhile, both heroes in the film are faced with their own demons, accidentally killing people on their own side and realistically dealing with the mental consequences. “Sometimes,” says Woo, “when you feel a person is bad, there is good in there as well. This is a truth about human beings and a theme in all of my movies. I have always believed that good and evil are not black and white. They co-exist in people.” All of the thrills in Hard Boiled are over the top, of course — in real life any one of the action scenes would have resulted in the army being brought in to quell matters. But it’s meaningful, carrying powerful consequences both in the character’s lives and in the audience’s psyche.
“John Woo is a man of contradictions,” concludes Michael Bliss. “He’s a romantic Christian idealist who loves guns and explosions, he’s a man of peace who choreographs death and destruction better than anyone working in movies today. . . Woo is a difficult fit because he blends Western humanism with Asian attitudes. And like Kurosawa, he’s a man that knows that often, violence and justice cannot be separated.” Judging from the state of the world, our inner war between Old Testament justice and New Testament forgiveness and redemption aren’t going away anytime soon. Which makes me all the more thankful that, over two decades ago, a devout Christian director named John Woo chose for a few short years to explore those themes in such a startling and heartfelt fashion. The Hollywood technicians can mimic the camerawork and the style, sure. But for this bedrock faith in Christianity as a powerful, elevating and ennobling force, you still have to go back to the original.
This concludes our analysis of the potent, Christian-laced action extravaganza Hard Boiled. Come back next Saturday for the beginning of an all-new For Conservative Movie Lovers series, only at Big Hollywood.
Previous posts in the series “John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, and Hard Boiled“
FURTHER READING and VIEWING
There have been more than a few versions of Hard Boiled available on DVD over the years, and which one is best remains a debatable matter. The best image by far can be found in the French edition (but alas, no English subtitles). The sound is fairly comparable across all editions (some have a 5:1 DTS remix, but many claim the original mono mix sounds better). Most of the editions use bastardized subtitles that fail to capture the nuances of the original Cantonese dialogue. There’s even a Taiwanese “uncut” version available that adds about five minutes to the final hospital shootout, but the original Cantonese dialogue is dubbed in Mandarin and there’s a different musical score.
For Americans, your best bet is probably the $11.49 Dragon Dynasty edition, which has decent picture, very good sound, and a host of supplements (including a full commentary by Bey Logan, one of the authors used to research this FCML series). UK readers might try the Region 2 disc available from Tartan Asia Extreme, which purportedly has the nicest image transfer aside from the French version.
If you’re one of those people who has never tried a Hong Kong movie, and who isn’t keen on spending an evening watching a twenty-year-old foreign film with subtitles, I’m hoping you reconsider, especially if you are an action movie fan. Every die-hard fan of Hong Kong movies started out as a wary newbie dragged by their friends to see something that they thought would be boring or hard to understand. It’s only after giving it a try that they realized just how much fresh energy, passion, color, and humor is to be found in those pictures. And if you’re the type of person who just can’t abide listening to a foreign language for that long while looking down to read the subtitled translations, you can always click over to the English-dubbed audio track and turn the subtitles off. That’s a purist’s nightmare, but in my opinion a far better option than not seeing Hard Boiled at all.
Part of a good film education is selectively trying out new genres you’ve always avoided. In some cases, the viewing will simply confirm your long-held suspicions, and that’s fair enough. But often you’ll end up discovering some thoroughly entertaining corner of cinema that you’ll wish you had found long before. Hard Boiled is revered as a great gateway drug into the world of Hong Kong movies, a hard-hitting action picture in the Rambo/Dirty Harry/Die Hard mold. If you like those sorts of films, do give it a try.