John Woo and His Discontents

By Williams, Anthony | CineAction, February 1997 | Go to article overview

John Woo and His Discontents


Williams, Anthony, CineAction


IN 1997, HONG KONG RETURNS TO THE CHINESE MAINLAND, AN EVENT viewed with great apprehension by most of its inhabitants after an arrogant and callous betrayal by Margaret Thatcher. As a result, many of Hong Kong's creative talents have sought refuge in the United States and Canada hoping to continue the recent achievements of Hong Kong Cinema in a more hospitable climate. But while Hollywood once borrowed creatively from developments in World Cinema such as 20s German expressionism, Soviet montage, and the French New Wave, the current moribund state of a once dynamic industry has led to mindless big-budget exploitation dominated by corporate interests. Ironically, this system has welcomed John Woo. However, like Mauritz Stiller, Victor Sjostrom, and Fritz Lang before him, he is confronted with certain economic constraints on his creative abilities. Woo now finds himself in a similar position to his early years in the Hong Kong film industry when he struggled to define a particular vision which eventually gained expression in A Better Tomorrow (1986). John Woo faces a far more dangerous threat to his abilities than any posed by the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Mainland China or Triad involvement in his home industry - contemporary Hollywood.

Woo's first two Hollywood films, Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996) are mixed commodities. Broken Arrow is the more disappointing of the two. Written by Graham Yost, the scenarist of Speed (1994), it is little different from Hollywood's run-of-the-mill action exploitation. Borrowing much from Steven Seagal's Under Siege 2 (1995)(1), but lacking Eric Bogosian's deliberately hilarious "comedian as villain" performance, Broken Arrow deals with such Woo themes as friendship and betrayal, themes also common to the Shaw Brothers' work of veteran director Chang Che whom Woo worked with in the early 70s. B-3 Stealth Bomber pilot Vic Deakins (John Travolta) betrays his co-pilot Riley Hale (Christian Slater) by stealing two nuclear weapons to blackmail America. The film begins promisingly enough with a boxing tournament between both characters, an introductory device anticipating future conflict. However, both it and the twenty-dollar bill wager are intrusive metaphorical devices thrown into the narrative and weighing it down by over-laborious symbolization. Although Woo's characteristic slow-motion visual motifs appear briefly in the film, they are superficial and random, scattered within the narrative as if to assure Woo's followers that an author somehow exists in an over-budgeted special effects text featuring two mediocre actors. Broken Arrow is a huge disappointment in the light of Woo's Hong Kong achievements, casting doubt on the future prospects of any proposed Hollywood reunion with Chow Yun-Fat in The Corrupters.

Hard Target was much more promising. It reveals Woo attempting to synthesize Hong Kong motifs with a classical Hollywood tradition. Woo's hero Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), although not yet on the streets like fellow Vietnam veterans Douglas Binder and Elijah Roper, is precariously near to becoming a homeless person. Hard Target's world depicts an American society denying the reality of the plight of street people growing in number everywhere. The film is set in a New Orleans resounding with dark elements from America's violent past. New Orleans is not just the city of Southern gentility, jazz, and culture. It is also a city formerly known for flourishing pre-Civil War slave markets, race riots, and violence (most recently, the publicized murder of tourists).

Many reviews recognized Chuck Pfarrer's screenplay as a variation of the most filmed short story in American cinema--"The Most Dangerous Game" written in 1924 by Richard Connell. But this was not a studio-imposed screenplay. Pfarrer stated that John Woo actually chose it out of the fifty or so American scripts offered because "he liked the story."(2) The writer is also known for scripts such as Dark Man and Navy Seals and is a former Navy Seal who was injured in the 1983 Beirut bombing. …

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