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Artist of the Year 2021: John Woo

Movies are listed in watch order

鐵漢柔情 The Young Dragons (1975)

Still from The Young Dragons

女子跆拳群英會 The Dragon Tamers (1975)

Watched with pretty janky subtitles. Rarely incomprehensible, one could always feels the texture of Mandarin grammar beneath the English words. When so much of modern media is made easy to access, there was something nostalgic and exhilirating about watching something endearingly bootlegged.

Still from The Dragon Tamers

帝女花 Princess Chang-Ping (1976)

Still from Princess Chang-Ping

少林門 Hand of Death (1976)

Still from Hand of Death

豪俠 Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

Still from Last Hurrah for Chivalry

錢作怪 From Riches to Rags (1980)

Has exactly two good jokes in it, and they’re subtle enough that they might not have even been intentional.

Still from From Riches to Rags

摩登天師 To Hell with the Devil (1982)

Still from To Hell with the Devil

八彩林亞珍 Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982)

The slapstick stuff doesn’t do much for me, but there’s a comedy of desperation throughout that’s biting and quite good. The tunnel scene alone, of people recognizing their power having stopped the machine of the city, and extracting mahjongg/pop concerts/free tunnel tolls for life is a particularly fun power fantasy to see on screen.

Still from Plain Jane to the Rescue

英雄無淚 Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

Still from Heroes Shed No Tears

英雄本色 A Better Tomorrow (1986)

A startling stylistic leap from Heroes Shed No Tears. I expected to see a more gradual discovery of style.

Still from A Better Tomorrow

英雄本色2 A Better Tomorrow II (1987)

Still from A Better Tomorrow II

喋血雙雄 The Killer (1989)

Still from The Killer

義膽群英 Just Heroes (1989)

Having characters in your film talk about being fans of the movie you made 3 years ago is a bold move.

Still from Just Heroes

喋血街頭 Bullet in the Head (1990)

Still from Bullet in the Head

縱橫四海 Once a Thief (1991)

Woo is haunted by A Better Tomorrow’s Mark. Revived, then referred to as a known fictional character, and now found rolling across a kitchen on a skateboard. Mark is too fun of a character to not see his echoes everywhere.

Still from Once a Thief

辣手神探 Hard Boiled (1992)

The last Hong Kong film of Woo’s. The tracking shot through two floors’ of hallways is perhaps his best action scene so far. It smartly deemphasizes a key moment of friendly fire in the middle, a casualty of the fog of war.

Still from Hard Boiled

Hard Target 1993

Thematically barren. Not unrelatedly, Woo didn’t write this (nor any of his other US or Canadian films). Late in the film, Henriksen lampshades and asks Van Damme why he meddled since this wasn’t his problem. Good question.

Still from Hard Target

Broken Arrow 1996

Still from Broken Arrow

Once a Thief 1996

Not nearly as bad as I expected. That might’ve been because I was less watching the movie, and more watching the space between this and the original. There are some interesting choices (making one of the “siblings” the villain) and some curious (not getting rid of the semi-incestuous romance).

I bought this for $5 since it’s not easy to track down otherwise. It has the saddest bootleg-looking DVD menu I’ve ever seen.

Still from Once a Thief

Face/Off 1997

Still from Face/Off

Blackjack 1998

Still from Blackjack

Mission: Impossible II 2000

Continuing a pattern in Woo’s Hollywood work, the action lives separate from the narrative. It’s only spectacle, filled with the iconography of Woo’s Hong Kong work but little else. A more integrated climactic fight might have spoke to Ambrose as a poor, more impulsive, substitute for Hunt. But instead it’s Hunt who ultimately “gets his gun off” to defeat him. Some nice Bruce Lee homage before that, though.

Cruise does seem to be the best suited actor for Woo that I’ve seen in this stretch.

Still from Mission: Impossible II

Hostage 2002

The whole BMW short series helpfully juxtaposes Woo against contemporary Hollywood filmmakers. This period marks a transition from Intensified Continuity to Chaos Cinema, and Woo’s style is much more continuous and readable. Hostage shares a release year with The Bourne Identity, which is the poster child of this new style.

Windtalkers 2002

Still from Windtalkers

Paycheck 2003

Contrary to what I wrote about Hostage, there is actually a dash of Chaos Cinema in here. But for that, and several other reasons, it never ends up feeling like a Woo film.

Still from Paycheck

赤壁 Red Cliff (2008)

Watched as one 5 hour movie.

Thematically right in Woo’s wheelhouse, and it feels good to return to steady ground. The “romance” between Zhuge and Zhou Yu, temporary allies against a foe lacking in principles ties, it to Woo’s Hong Kong work. Having a passing familiarty with the historical event, and the fictional representations, provides the opportunity to see what Woo is adding: melodrama, and men standing far to close to each others’ faces.

Still from Red Cliff

赤壁2:決戰天下 Red Cliff Part II (2009)

Watched as one 5 hour movie.

Still from Red Cliff Part II

太平轮(上) The Crossing (2014)

Still from The Crossing

太平轮(下):彼岸 The Crossing II (2015)

Still from The Crossing II

追捕 Manhunt (2017)

Still from Manhunt