Ng Yu-Sum, better known as John Woo (born 1 May 1946) is probably the best known (to Western audiences) Hong Kong director. Drawing inspiration from movie greats like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, and Shaw Brothers legend Chang Cheh, Woo is powerfully associated with the Heroic Bloodshed genre and its most visually appealing tropes: Guns Akimbo, the Mexican Standoff, Bloodstained Glass Windows, and Disturbed Doves. Especially those doves.
Not to be confused with John Yoo.
Woo's Hong Kong movies (with focus on Heroic Bloodshed) are, in no particular order:
- A Better Tomorrow (1986) - A classic story of brothers on opposite sides of the law. The younger brother Sung Tse Kit, the cop, was played by Leslie Cheung, and the older brother Sung Tse Ho, the Triad gangster, was played by Ti Lung. This is the movie that kick-started the Heroic Bloodshed genre in earnest, and it would also provide Chow Yun-fat's first major starring role as Mark Gor, an angry young gunslinger whose bond with Ho borders on brotherhood itself. The movie's most memorable scene is Mark Gor's one-man vengeance spree at the restaurant that features John Woo's first use of Guns Akimbo, a trope that would later come to define the genre in general. It was also the movie that prompted the formation of Hong Kong's rating system for movies due to its violence, and would later receive the rating of Category IIb (equivalent to the R rating).
- Heroes Shed No Tears (1986) - John Woo's very first gunplay movie, made before A Better Tomorrow, but released after that movie became a hit in Hong Kong. Starring Eddy Ko Hung, Lam Ching Ying, Lai Chan Shang and Kuo Sheng, this movie is a low budget movie about The Vietnam War, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now which marks the beginnings of the gunplay styles that would soon become John Woo's trademark. Woo would later improve upon the themes of this movie in his Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head.
- A Better Tomorrow II (1987) - Chow Yun-fat returns as Ken Gor, the twin brother of Mark Gor, who teams up with the two brothers from the first movie in order to avenge the daughter of a friend played by Dean Shek. It's not as good storyline-wise as the first movie, but the final scene, which has Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung and Dean Shek storming a mansion packed with bad guys to avenge Leslie Cheung and take down the main bad guy once and for all, more than makes up for it. This movie would also be the first to introduce the John Woo version of the Mexican Standoff, though its true iconic use would come later.
- Just Heroes (1989) - Directed by John Woo and Wu Ma, this is one of the lesser-known John Woo movies, but no less action-packed, this movie has two brothers (played by Danny Lee and David Chiang) teaming up against a third who betrayed and killed their well-respected gang boss father.
- The Killer (1989) - One of John Woo's best-known movies next to Hard-Boiled, Chow Yun-fat plays a Hitman with a Heart who takes on one final job in order to raise the money to fix a tragic mistake that he made that left a singer (Sally Yeh) blinded, only to be double crossed by his boss (Shing Fui-On) who would rather kill Chow than give him the money. Chow's only ally is a Cowboy Cop played by Danny Lee who comes to form a close bond with the man he had sworn to bring to justice. This movie qualifies as one of John Woo's best, and includes not only the iconic use of the Mexican Standoff between Chow and Lee, but also ends with a furious shootout in a church with doves flying everywhere as Chow and Lee blow away an army of bad guys to defend themselves and Sally from the boss and his men.
- Bullet in the Head (1990) - Woo's grimmest and most emotionally devastating flick yet, this movie combines the trademark John Woo gangland action with the horrors of Vietnam, and showcases the destructive power of Gold Fever on the Heroic Bloodshed bond of brotherhood between three would-be gangsters who try to strike it rich in the Nam while the war is in full swing.
- Once A Thief (1991) - This movie focuses on three international art thieves played by Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung and Cheri Chung. Raised by the same father, they go on a last big heist that involves the theft of a mysterious "cursed" painting and the movie focuses on how its obsession affects the family. While the gunplay is as plentiful as in Woo's other movies, the focus here is on romance and fun, not the tragedy and melodrama of Woo's earlier works, which is a welcome change of pace. The film would eventually be remade into a short-lived Canadian/American syndicated series.
- Hard Boiled (1992) - Woo's last big Hong Kong movie, this movie is perhaps the most action-packed ever. Chow Yun-fat stars as a Cowboy Cop named Tequila who fights Triad gunrunners in a series of explosive shootouts. He teams up with Alan, another Hitman with a Heart played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai who turns out to be an undercover cop who has infiltrated the gang and was forced to betray his last Triad boss. The movie kicks into action overdrive when midway through the film, the Big Bad, Johnny Wong, and his crew of bad guys take over a hospital in pure Die Hard fashion, and Tequila and Alan have to save everyone that they've taken hostage and take down the bad guys once and for all in true Heroic Bloodshed fashion in one of the most explosive running shootouts that John Woo has ever filmed.
Woo eventually ended up in Hollywood, where he directed the following films:
- Hard Target (1993)
- Broken Arrow (1996)
- Face/Off (1997)
- Blackjack (1998)
- Mission: Impossible II (2000)
- Windtalkers (2002)
- Paycheck (2003)
Woo left Hollywood and returned to Chinese cinema in 2008 by directing Red Cliff, a big budget two-part film inspired by a famous battle in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the wuxia movies Reign of Assassins and the two-part movie The Crossing. He has recently returned to the genre that made him famous with 2017's Manhunt.
Woo also has a number of production credits to his name, having co-produced The Replacement Killers, Chow Yun-fat's first major Hollywood movie, which features many of the thematic elements of his other films. In addition, Woo helped produce the video game Stranglehold, a sequel to Hard-Boiled which pits Inspector Tequila against the father of the Big Bad from the film. He additionally became known on the Anime scene as the producer of Appleseed Ex Machina.
Common tropes appearing in works by John Woo:
- Blood Brothers: A very common theme in his Hong Kong works.
- Bottomless Magazines: Characters reload guns when it is convenient for the film's pacing, and not a second before.
- Creator Backlash: He disowned A Better Tomorrow II due to the Executive Meddling denying him final cut. With the exception of the climactic gun battle.
- Disturbed Doves: A signature trope of his, mainly because he likes the symbolism.
- Guns Akimbo: The Trope Codifier for its usage in modern action and crime films. Just about all his films has at least one character doing this.
- Gun Fu: The Trope Maker. The word is that Hong Kong audiences saw gunfights as boring compared to the Wuxia films that were popular at the time. His response was to stylize the gunfights to show individual skill and flair.
- Leap and Fire: One of the many stylized elements of Woo's gunplay. Interestingly, his early Hong Kong works had very little of this.
- Mean Character, Nice Actor: In real life, Woo is a Christian Pacifist who claims to never have fired a gun once.
- Mexican Standoff: His films frequently have the two-person point-blank variant, to the point where it is sometimes referred to as the "John Woo Standoff". In fact, this trope was deeply associated with him before it became associated with Quentin Tarantino, who's usage of them was largely in reference to Woo.
- Rated M for Manly