John Woo's Cinema of Hyperkinetic Violence: From A Better Tomorrow to Face/Off

By Hanke, Robert | Film Criticism, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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John Woo's Cinema of Hyperkinetic Violence: From A Better Tomorrow to Face/Off


Hanke, Robert, Film Criticism


For many North American movie goers like myself, Face/Off (1997) was both a summer box-office hit and an introduction to director John Woo's choreography and pyrotechnics of violent action. Though I am by no means a fan of Hollywood action movies, Face/Off was compelling and intriguing, if not always pleasurable, to watch, compared to other violence-laden Hollywood action films or crime dramas, such as LA Confidential (1997). For all its discomfiting violence, the film presents us with a more complicated case of interpreting screen violence and understanding its social and (cross)cultural implications and meanings than the usual Hollywood fare. In this essay, I want to argue that while Woo's first two Hollywood features reflect his assimilation into the generic conventions and formulas of the mainstream "American" action movie, Face/Off represents a generic transformation. For in this film, Woo carries on with concerns registered in his Hong Kong films -- the vicissitudes and instability of the masculine subject--in order to bring to Hollywood action film a new kind of male protagonist, one that combines physical violence and emotional intensity. Having based his career on appropriating from American films, among other traditions of world cinema, Woo also picks up on recent Hollywood films which feature male protagonists who are both violent and sensitive, who perform their own contradictions, and who struggle with themselves as much as with evil. This generic transformation is not merely a matter of changing images of the male action hero, as Woo's hybrid aesthetic combines a spectacular style of violent masculinity with the cultural form of melodrama.

Of course, the representation of violence in film and television has been a long-standing public and scholarly concern. Bang Bang, Shoot Shoot! Essays on Guns and Popular Culture, based on an international conference held at Ryerson Polytechnic University last year, is symptomatic of the latest round of inquiry attempting to come to terms with the seemingly inexplicable phenomenon of media violence (Pomerance and Sakeris).(1) Explanations, interpretations, and assessments of the social and cultural significance of media violence differ, depending on one's scholarly paradigm, approach to film or television study, definition of screen violence or contextual factors, and what sort of "effects" one is seeking to explain.(2)

To begin with, there is the quantity of screen violence. In The Killing Screens: Media and the Culture of Violence, mass communication scholar George Gerbner discusses this issue from the social-scientific perspective of cultivation theory. Specifically, how can we account for the fact that when Hollywood action films are remade, there is a substantial rise in the dead body count? For Gerbner, violence is a "cheap, industrial ingredient" used to project a sense of male power and to hype up otherwise dull programs or films. While violent media fare may not be the most popular, violence is used to ensure that movies will "travel well" in the globalized media market since physical action, unlike dialogue, does not require translation, and humor may be culturally specific. In contrast to "legitimate artistic creations" where violent representations may show us tragedy, pain, or destruction, Hollywood action movies, Gerbner posits, present "happy violence" that is "entertaining" or "thrilling." In this approach, the chief assumption is that screen violence is not simply the representation of physical acts but social relations of power. Thus, screen violence, for heavy viewers of television, is a symbolic lesson about aggressors and victims that reinforces relations of power and cultivates a sense that the world is a dangerous place to live in.(3)

Other scholars have focussed on the shift in the quality of screen violence. From the perspective of humanistic film studies, Barry Grant detects a "new tone of violence" in contemporary Hollywood action movies; killing, he observes, is so commonplace that it no longer shocks but is met with "bemused detachment" (Grant 70).

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