John Woo is probably Hong Kong's most successful cinema export product ever. He is, at least to my knowledge, the only Hong Kong director who managed to direct a series of A-grade blockbusters. But there is a lot more to Woo's oeuvre than just his Hollywood stuff.
Woo started his career in the early 70s, directing run of the mill martial arts flicks. While not terrible films, it's pretty obvious why it would take him half a lifetime to have another go at the genre. Chu Ba [Fists of the Double K] and Shao Lin Men [Countdown in Kung Fu] do merit some extra attention, though not so much because of Woo's direction. Both films feature a very young Jackie Chan, Shao Lin Men also has Sammo Hung listed in the credits, so hardcore martial arts fans should have some additional incentive to check them out.
Before wooing the world with his heroic bloodshed cinema, Woo would take a little detour directing comedies. It's a little-known fact, but for a span of almost 10 years Woo would direct 7 comedy films, the biggest surprise being that they weren't half bad. Films like Hua Ji Shi Dai [Laughing Times], Mo Deng Tian Shi [To Hell with the Devil] and Liang Zhi Lao Hu [Run Tiger, Run] are above average comedies that stand as the best of their time. If, of course, you can stomach that typical Hong Kong sense of humor.
By the time Woo started working on his first real action film (guns blazing and all that), he had already directed 11 films in total. In '86 Woo released Ying Hung Boon Sik [A Better Tomorrow], a landmark in his oeuvre that saw him united with Yun-Fat Chow for the first time. It's the start of what would come to be known as "heroic bloodshed" cinema, a combination of high octane action mixed with overly sentimental drama, undoubtedly Woo's biggest contribution to the world of cinema.
Woo's first real masterpiece is Dip Huet Seung Hung [The Killer], a film that contains most of his trademark elements. Crazy action scenes, lots of slow-motion, a little unwelcome drama and of course a couple of doves to add some extra class to the action. In '92 Woo would one-up himself with Lat Sau San Taam [Hard-Boiled], an even more explosive action film also worth checking out. In between he directed Zong Heng Si Hai [Once a Thief], following the short-lived trend to make a film about a couple of art thieves.
In '93 Woo finally made the switch to Hollywood, but instead of storming the American market with his skilful action work, Woo dropped back to the bottom of the ladder and was forced to work his way up from scratch. His first Hollywood films are mediocre B-grade action films. It wasn't until Face/Off, his fourth American project, that Woo finally made it back to the big league. Sadly he couldn't follow it up with more great films, though action fans might still appreciate films like Mission Impossible II and Windtalkers.
I for one was very happy to see Woo return to China. In 2008 he came back to him homestead to make his 2-part tactical war epic Chi Bi [Red Cliff], fun films with some great (tactical) action, though quite CG-heavy. Two years later John Woo would assist Chao-Bin Su in directing Jianyu [Reign of Assassins], one of the best martial arts film of the current generation. It's a bit hard to say exactly how involved Woo was, but looking at Su's prior work and the high quality of the action scenes, I think it's fair to say Woo's name is not just up there for show. Currently the man is working on another 2-part war epic titled Tai Ping Lun [The Crossing]. The first one was a bit melodramatic for my taste, but if you like yourself some big budget action set pieces it's well worth a try.
Woo has had a long and worthwhile career, travelling between martial arts, comedy, heroic bloodshed and Hollywood, only to return to Hong Kong to (probably) end his career in the local market. There's still life left in Woo, though I wonder if he'll ever return to his most iconic work. The way I see it, one more heroic bloodshed film to rule them all would be a superb goodbye gift by one of the top action directors of his generation.
Best film: Jianyu [Reign of Assassins] (4.0*)
Worst film: Once a Thief (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.68 (out of 5)