John Woo almost died of an infection at the age of 3. The doctor told Woo's father that he should have another kid, that there was no hope for this one. Instead, his father spent all the money he had on a Western doctor, curing Woo and plunging the family into years of poverty. His father, a scholar and palm reader, "looked at me and said, 'I have to save him'," Woo recounts. " 'My son is going to be very talented'."
Woo, of course, has been the king of Hong Kong cinema for decades ("The Killer," "Hard-Boiled"). It's only more recently, with the success of "Face/Off" and the $90 million "Mission: Impossible" sequel, "M: I-2," kicking off Memorial Day weekend on May 24, that Woo is making a real bid to rule the American box office as well. Hollywood has shamelessly cribbed from the 54-year-old director, from the "Mexican standoff" at the end of "Reservoir Dogs" (with the gangsters all pointing guns at one another's head) to much of what seemed original in "The Matrix"--the torrential cascades of bullets, the slow-motion airborne acrobatics, the balletically choreographed violence. With his character-driven, art-action sensibility and his deep understanding of the strengths, failures and contradictions of contemporary masculinity, Woo is rejuvenating Hollywood's fusty and formulaic action genre. And Woo's signature--the sensitive but testosterone-drenched action hero--has breathed new life into the "Mission: Impossible" franchise.
Two years ago "M:I" star and producer Tom Cruise--who has to save Australia from a deadly virus in the sequel--set out on his first mission: to get Woo to take the job. Like most people, Woo found the plot of the first "M:I," directed by Brian De Palma, too confusing, the characters too cold. "I didn't feel anything," Woo says. "And I never wanted to make a sequel, and didn't care about making a spy movie. I wanted to work with Tom, but not on this." But Cruise gave him the hard sell: "M: I-2" would be a John Woo movie from start to finish, he said, and he wanted to try the martial arts, the gunfighting and all the stunts himself. "When I talked to him, I found that Tom is actually a very charming guy," Woo says. "He always smiles, he's very optimistic and he looks very innocent to me. So I said, 'Why don't you put some of your own character into the film? …