As part of an ongoing retrospective of films starring Nicolas Cage, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films screens John Woo’s Face/Off on Thu 1/30 at 9 PM. I can think of few films that better exemplify the whacked-out enthusiasm of a Cage performance (except for maybe Bringing Out the Dead, which is also included on the program). To that point, I can think of few directors better equipped to harness said whacked-out enthusiasm than John Woo, action director par excellence, who’s known for his fascinatingly over-the-top work. Woo’s films are characterized by bullets flying in slow motion, kinetically charged fight scenes, and blatant displays of masculinity. Ultimately, however, these elements prove to be stylistic surface pleasures that sensationalize Woo’s primary concerns: the moral and social complexities of patriarchal gangster milieus. His films, entertaining as all hell, get to the root causes of violence even as they revel in the garish pleasures of violence in movies. My five favorite are after the jump.
5. Hand of Death (1976) My favorite of Woo’s early work, a wuxia film he made for Golden Harvest that features stunt choreography from Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan in an early role. It displays his long-standing interest in marginalized heroes and their battles against tyrannical villains. The film’s period setting is also strikingly tangible, with particular attention paid to costuming, architecture, and formal customs. Conveniently enough, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.
4. Hard Target (1993) Woo’s first American film, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle that reimagines Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game as literal class warfare. Woo, an underrated director of actors, draws a bravura performance out of both Lance Henriksen, whose comic-book villainy is alternately manic, sadistic, and cartoonish, and Van Damme, a sort of abstract symbol of the great “American hero,” whose origins Woo traces all the way back to John Wayne’s introduction in Stagecoach. Plus, there’s that final scene . . .
3. Face/Off (1997) “Woo has directed some amazing movies—this isn’t one of them,” wrote former Reader critic Lisa Alspector, referring to this tongue-in-cheek actioner. Obviously, I disagree. The film’s premise, however ludicrous, makes philosophical observations on identity and self-impression; it’s also a metacommentary on the art of acting—particularly, the sort of acting found in Hollywood action blockbusters. It helps that Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, two of the hammiest scene chewers in Hollywood history, deliver the kind of self-aware performances necessary for such an endearingly ironic film.
2. The Killer (1989) Fun fact: Woo first used his famous “white doves” motif in this actioner about two men on opposite sides of the law who find a common enemy in an evil Triad boss. Legendary Hong Kong director Chang Cheh’s influence on Woo is particularly evident here, seen in the amorphously defined relationship between Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee. There’s a somewhat romantic (some might say homoerotic) nature to their unlikely courtship; like Cheh, Woo is fascinated with male camaraderie, particularly the type that emerges between would-be adversaries.
1. Hard Boiled (1992) The bullet-ridden action scenes that bookend this gangster thriller are among the most chaotic of Woo’s career, but it’s the almost Zen-like action in between that makes the film what it is. In their respective roles, Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung exude a New Wave cool (Leung’s character, the unnamed undercover cop/paid assassin, was actually modeled after Alain Delon in Le Samourai) seemingly at odds with the chaotic action, but these contradictions in mood contextualize the violence in ways that are introspective, self-reflexive, and almost peaceful. Almost.