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John Woo’s Unfinished Projects

May 30, 2012

Woo Van Damme New Film
John Woo with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Picture from at least 100 years ago.

It’s been at least two posts since I’ve written about John Woo. He’s been pretty quiet since the release of Red Cliff which still demands a larger fanbase. I think hardcore fans skipped out on it theatrically knowing it wasn’t the full cut and the interest in Chinese epics has dwindled since we are long out of the era of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. Woo’s slow down in production had me a bit worried, especially after hearing him deny having throat cancer doesn’t help much. He had a tonsil tumor removed before February this year as well and is not getting much progress done on his romance film Love and Let Love. Whether this film gets off the ground or not, it can be placed in the large pile of projects that Woo had put on hold. I’ve tried to make a complete list compiling what is currently in the works and films that are no longer in play.

Kickin’ off with the films that are currently in the lengthy period known as “pre-production”:

John Woo’s Le Samourai

Nearly any article that mentions a mild history of Woo always brings up either Le Samourai or Jean Pierre Melville’s influence on him. It’s hard to overstate, and would make me wonder how Melville would react to such love from directors like Woo or Johnnie To. According to French director Jacques Rivette (who hated Woo’s Face/Off but loves Luc Besson), Melville apparently always wanted to have disciples so I’d suppose he would be proud to have such followers. I don’t think there’s any real reason for Woo to remake Le Samourai as he’s already nipped the best bits of it for The Killer ages back. It would also be an American film which only makes me imagine Nicolas Cage in the Alain Delon role and Rihanna as the nightclub singer. It’d be a big step up from her work in Battleship probably, but we’ll have to wait and see if anything new comes from this project.

John Woo’s Marco Polo

There’s very little information about this one, but Woo is interested in another historical film about Marco Polo, specifically his relationship with Kublai Khan. I’m not Chinese history expert (and neither is Woo from his story in Red Cliff) but from drawings of Kublai, I think Lam Suet should co-star. If he’s working his historical romance now, I think three in a row would be a bit much to ask of Woo. Cut it out with the historical films already.

John Woo’s Flying Tigers

Here’s Woo being slow to the punch again. Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War was first to be the big popular film that was a Chinese production with an English-language actor (Christian Bale). This could be why it’s been at least a year since we’ve heard anything about Flying Tigers which was about an American Volunteer Group and the 14th Air Force during World War II. This would have been a film starring Tom Cruise which Woo hasn’t worked with since, well, the worst film in the Mission Impossible series. As no one has spoken about this film in quite a while, I can only assume it’s been shoved back. Tom’s very busy doing his hair metal movie anyways.

John Woo’s Youth of the Beast

This one I was the most excited for a number of reasons. First, it’s Woo’s return to the gangster genre, his first since…well, I suppose either Hard Boiled or A Bullet in the Head. Has it been that long? Second, it’s a film that Woo hasn’t already basically done unlike Le Samourai Woo has stated that he is a fan of the Japanese yakuza genre, but hasn’t explicitly noted how Youth of the Beast or any of Seijun Suzuki’s films have influenced him. Lastly, it’s a film that not everyone knows. Youth of the Beast is generally considered higher-tier Suzuki from his fan-base but it’s not quite as popular as Branded to Kill or Tokyo Drifter. The only problem? The film will probably be American as it’s plot now involves a “western outsider” and a two groups of gangsters: Russian and Japanese. Woo’s American films’ aren’t my favourite’s, but I’m still quite curious.

That’s a lot on Woo’s plate so that bastard better get well and get filming as soon as possible. He has left projects off long enough or has turned down films which would’ve have interesting results. Let’s quickly dash through the list of films that Woo has passed up.

John Woo’s King’s Ransom

Anticipating King’s Ransom is nostalgia from the 90s. In a perfect world, this should have been Woo’s first project in the United States as it was reportedly going to star Chow-Yun Fat and be written by the Face/Off writers Michael Colleary and Mike Web. This film has been in talks since the 1990s and Woo has finally given up the idea of directing it. The latest news on King’s Ransom is that it will be directed by Milky Way alumni Patrick Leung who also worked with Woo as a second unit director on The Killer and Red Cliff. In the book John Woo: The Interviews, Woo states the script has changed on King’s Ransom, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing any Face/Off-esque dialouge directly translated to Mandarin anytime soon.

John Woo’s Metroid

Video games aren’t movies. Movies based on things where a protagonist who is generally mute sound like bad things to base your film about. Either way, Woo has purchased the rights to a film version of the Metroid series around 2006. This was pretty shocking for me to hear about at the time as Woo seems to dislike science fiction. He even turned down the original script to Face/Off which he found to be too science fiction oriented in 1993. His only real step into the science fiction arena was in Pay Check which isn’t anyone’s favourite Woo film. No one has really discussed anything about Metroid relating to John Woo since the announcement of him buying the rights to it in the mid-2000s, but I have a hunch that any paper Woo signed relating to this project is gathering dust in a closet.

John Woo’s Goldeneye

I don’t even no the accuracy of this one as the only mention of it I can find is in Christopher Heard’s book Ten Thousand Bullets which has a lot inaccurate information. According to the book, MGM offered Woo a chance to direct GoldenEye in the 1990s even before he signed on to make Broken Arrow which is a nearly forgotten film. Woo apparently took on Broken Arrow as a way to try to learn how to use special effects…so if you’re a fan of pre-Matrix post-Terminator 2 special effects, there’s a copy in a bargain bin somewhere with your name on it. GoldenEye, and the James Bond universe is probably something Woo shouldn’t have tackled in the long run. James Bond is an institution and you can’t really change those films too much and get away with it. Neither the producers nor the James Bond fans would really be happy with that. Woo would’ve been held down by the restraints of what requires a Bond film to be a Bond film at that time and not really get any of his own ideas really placed within it. But it’s still not as strange as the next film Woo had been considering.

John Woo’s Phantom of the Opera

I have just stared at the heading of this section for a minute trying to even think about what to write here. Woo has long pined for the chance to direct a musical film or as he describes it as “his action musical”. There’s little information in this one within the Ten Thousand Bullets book and the John Woo: The Interviews books stating that John Travolta suggested the idea to him. Woo reported that “it somehow didn’t work out”. Even more nuts is Woo was also in the running to direct Chicago, remember that film? No one cares about Chicago anymore. Woo had already signed on to direct Mission Impossible 2 at that time, so there was no chance of going through with it.

Woo’s a director with a long history mixed with rumors, classics and films ideas that need to be done as soon as possible. I don’t know how ill Woo may really be, but I’m hoping for good news and good films in the future. In the meantime, I’m going to see if Paul Verhoeven is planning to make another film before he turns 100.

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Hard Boiled Review

May 8, 2011

Now I’m not only recovering from screenings, but recovering from Canadian elections too. I don’t want to use this blog to push any politics so let’s talk a film that elicited genuine gasps and shock from the audience when it was shown at the Mayfair theatre in Ottawa: Hard Boiled!

On paper, the production of Hard Boiled is kind of a mess. Some scenes such as the the tea-house fight were shot when there was no shooting script. When the film’s screenplay was written by Barry Wong, Wong sadly died while on vacation leaving it unfinished. Plot points that were originally in the script such as a baby-poisoning psychopath are mostly lost in the mix with elements stirred in towards the end during the heroic and slightly hilarious baby-rescue. Other re-writes involve Michelle Yeoh who was originally going to have been cast in Teresa Mo’s role. I’m not sure why this was changed, but Mo’s character was greatly re-written after Michelle was unable to be in the film. I assume somewhere in Hong Kong there is a huge cabinet full of nothing but screenplay drafts for Hard Boiled.

Here’s where I’m a bit confused. All credits and books I’ve read relating to the film say that John Woo completed the script himself, but an interview on the Hong Kong Cinemagic website with director and writer Gordon Chan suggest that he helped finishing the draft of Hard Boiled after Wong died. Gordon Chan even goes on to explain little bits of his draft that are in the film such as the warehouse scene. If this is the case, how come his name does not appear in the credits? I’ve read most books relating to Woo and have heard two audio commentaries on the film and I never heard Gordon mentioned once. So what gives?

Despite production troubles and my own historical confusion, Hard Boiled is a film that can maintain quality while not just being over the top in terms of action sequences but in basic plot elements which range from implausible to silly. Let’s look at some enjoyable nonsense we have here:

Hard Boiled Hospital
Hospitals have secret underground weapons bunkers
with Scrooge McDuck-esque sliding doors.

Hard Boiled Song

Coded messages being delivered through Lionel Richie lyrics
(and sung by Chow-Yun Fat and Teresa Mo!)


Weapons are hidden in Shakespeare and bird cages!

I’m just scratching the surface with that kind of pulp! To match them, we have the equally over the top action scenes which I consider to be some of the best filmed. When mentioning action scenes like “the teahouse scene” or “the hospital scene” to anyone who has seen Hard Boiled, they know what you are talking about without hesitation. This level of action also separates some audiences as some find it goes too far, while others rejoice in the glorious chaos. Personally, I like this film quite a bit, but I do see it in a slightly lesser light than Woo’s other major Hong Kong films, such as The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head. I do like it more than A Better Tomorrow II and Once a Theif. As for going too far, I think it doesn’t go as overboard as Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet so it suits me just fine.

Even though I do love action cinema, I’m a firm believer that if you are not going along with either the plot or characters, than you can have gorgeous action scenes that will not impress if you don’t care about the characters or what they are doing. Woo has compared the film to Dirty Harry with it’s tough police detective who makes vigilante justice seem appealing and Die Hard. I agree, especially with Die Hard for having really riveting action scenes in an isolated area all while giving quality actors some roles which are a bit thin on character and interest. To further the comparison in Die Hard, there are two actors with a lot of charisma (Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman) while in Hard Boiled we have some of the best actors to have graced Hong Kong screens, namely Chow Yun-Fat, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung (the real Tony Leung, not the fake one). Their performances (especially Chow’s and Tony’s) I think give enough depth to their characters to make them rise above the slightly messy plot. Tony and Chow seem to be having a blast, but not everyone had the fun working with Woo on the film. This was Anthony Wong’s only film with John Woo and he was not to happy on set. Wong felt the film was too comic-book like and didn’t like how Woo treated his actors. This is interesting, as everyone in America who’s worked with Woo had said that he is very polite and kind on the set while in Hong Kong, Woo is sometimes referred to as “the black faced God” being dead serious while working. I wonder how everyone felt about him during the production of Red Cliff?

On watching the film at the Mayfair theater, the audience was really taken by it. I don’t remember hearing so many loud gasps come from the audience since watching the joker do his pencil trick years back. I think this goes to show the quality of the film despite any plot’s short-comings: it still is exciting, keeps the audience hooked and is still talked about today. It set some pretty high standards for the action scenes in an action film so despite it’s flaws, I think Hard Boiled could easily creep in to a list of the top action films of the 1990s.

Sources: [1] [2]

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A Better Tomorrow Review

April 27, 2011

A Better Tomorrow / Hard-Boiled
The controversy of whether you put a dash between Hard and Boiled continues

I’m still slightly recovering from the sensory overload that was the double feature of A Better Tomorrow and Hard-Boiled at the Mayfair theater weeks ago. Seeing these two films again is a good refresher on how to make a superior action film. I don’t want to waste too much time on these films as you probably know that they kick all sorts of ass, but let’s continue.

For now, let’s discuss a quick history of the impact of A Better Tomorrow. This was director John Woo’s first important hit. When it was released in 1986 in Hong Kong it was not only the highest grossing film of the year, but the highest grossing Hong Kong film at that point making HK$35 million. According to Karen Fang’s book A Better Tomorrow, the film grossed thirty-five million Hong Kong dollars. In comparison, the second highest grossing film of the year which was Millionaire’s Express (starring big names like Sammo Hung , Yuen Biao and Cynthia Rothrock) made HK$28 million. Sammo’s films were already popular but this was when John Woo was known as comedy filmmaker and Chow-Yun Fat was known a comedic actor in television. Hard to believe that was ever the case. The film had two sequels, a remake, and several derivatives such as Wong Jing’s Return to a Better Tomorrow.

Of course, sales and popularity mean nothing unless the product itself is strong and can holdup nearly 30 years later. I’m happy to report that A Better Tomorrow does hold up despite not being as popular as Woo’s other Hong Kong flicks, namely Hard-Boiled and The Killer. It is noticeably different, A Better Tomorrow is less action-oriented and more operatic than either of those films. But thankfully for fans who can be won over without truck loads of action, it’s just as flashy and stylish as Woo’s best work. How stylish?

A Better Tomorrow is Stylish
Obviously very stylish.

Of course if it were all just slow-motion shots with a flimsy story than we wouldn’t be talking about A Better Tomorrow still today. Unlike many of Woo’s imitators who think it’s enough to have an actor flying across the screen with two-guns blazing, Woo does have the cinematic elements like characters, plot and his own pet-themes on his mind that give the stylish scenes the extra meat they need to last many views. Plot-wise, this film trumps Hard Boiled in my books. The films ganger-oriented story about honor and brotherhood between police offers and gangsters is a favourite theme of Woo’s, and he had been waiting for years to tell this type of story at this point in his career. It shows as it’s jam-packed with ideas with almost no wasted scenes. Everything is tightly woven and is delivered by some of the best actors Hong Kong has (including Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Chung who were showing up in all the best late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong films). Chow Yun-fat is especially enjoyable as he is given all the best lines in A Better Tomorrow. No wonder fans are still asking Woo to this day when they are working together next.

If the film has a sour note, I’d say it involves some earlier lighter scenes involving a music rehearsal. They seem out of place as they don’t make sense sequentially as comedic relief, nor are they particularly funny. You do get to see producer Tsui Hark as a music judge who gets his car’s rear-window smashed in however. On that note, Tsui Hark looks almost exactly the same now as he did 20 years ago too, does this guy ever age?


John Woo shows how he really feels about Tsui by smashing up his car.

The print at the Mayfair was excellent without a scratch or speckle. It was either brand new or from a private collector who takes very good care of their prints. It had English credits and only English subtitles which suggest it wasn’t a Hong Kong print, but it did include music that is not on my Anchor Bay DVD of the film. The main musical cue that I recall is the famous restaurant scene which you can see here. The YouTube video showcases the version I saw with it’s more quirky Cantonese music opposed to the saxophone and guitar music on the Anchor Bay release. I’ll take the original music over any soundtrack that involves a saxophone. Saxophone solos sound more dated than a synthesizer score to me. I haven’t seen the Region 2 UK disc of A Better Tomorrow, but from what reviews I’ve read, I find that it fares even worse than the Anchor Bay one.

I’m babbling like a fan boy here, but let’s just say that A Better Tomorrow could easily sneak into a list of the top crime films of the 1980s. If this print comes to your town, you owe yourself the pleasure to see this classic.

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Ottawa Cinema: April

March 22, 2011

Sometimes I find it difficult to live in Ottawa as a film fan. All the quality indie theaters I love show films far too late or on days where I’m juggling other responsibilities and can not make it out see ’em. In contrast, I live within walking distance to a multiplex, but they seem far more interesting in promoting Beastly than anything else. No thanks.

But I should be thankful for what I get. Because in April I get probably the best double feature I could hope for:

Ottawa Mayfair John Woo Double Feature

Yes! 35mm prints of two John Woo/Chow Yun-fat collaborations are definitely a positive thing. It’s playing on April 12th. I’ll be there. Not a bad excuse to blog about two masterpieces, right?

Another film of interest is being shown on April 1st when the Mayfair plays Enzo G. Castellari’s Keoma. I can’t say I’ve seen it, but I have heard nothing but good things about it. I’m sad to announce that I’ll be out of town when they are showing a print of Once Upon a Time in China II, but you can’t win them all right? I encourage anyone from Ottawa to make it out to see it on Friday.

Before I leave town for the weekend, I did manage to find one theater that is showing The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen, but that’s a 20 minute drive out of town to get there. Ouch. The only day I’d be able to see it would be tomorrow. Should I attempt the drive? Or pass?

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Gorgeous Thai Film Posters

March 16, 2011

I’m not nothing about how film promotion works in Thailand, but their posters always seem to make anything they advertise more interesting. They often seem to use using existing posters for a template, and then give them this exotic flair and painter like quality that are usually reserved for Indiana Jones or Star Wars film posters. This stylish Thai trend seemed to have existed from the 1970s to the 1990s and then it stopped. Does anyone know what happened? Why would they stop designing things as nice as these?

A View To Kill Thai Poster
A View to Kill (1985)

Rambo Thai poster
First Blood (1982)

Just Heroes poster
Just Heroes (1989)

La Femme Nikita Thai poster
Nikita (1990)

Police Story 2 Thai poster
Police Story 2 (1987)

The Terminator Thai poster
The Terminator (1984)

I have some more I may post another day and I have these files in a higher resolution if anyone is interested as well. Any requests?

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