Hong Kong gangster flick king takes on Hollywood
Now this is irony: While talking to John Woo, the legendary Hong Kong shoot-'em-up director whose films usually go through more ammunition than a small regional war, the subject turns to his heroes' predilection for large-caliber Beretta handguns.
"Do you have one?" I ask.
"No, I have never fired a real gun," says Woo. "I just like the look."
Noticing the registered surprise on my face, he tries to pad his gun story a little. "I have a fake one," he offers. "The prop guy made one for me with wood."
In San Francisco to promote "Face/Off," his new cat-and-mouse thriller that hinges on a cop and criminal (played by John Travolta and Nicholas Cage) literally swapping skins, Woo seems comfortable with this firearms paradox. His interest in guns lies solely in their effective presence on the screen.
"I feel the Beretta is a great character," he says seriously. "It's so strong and elegant. The other guns look dumb to me."
Getting down to brass tacks, he adds, "Also the good thing I like -- how many bullets can it fire? Seventeen bullets? You can fire 17 bullets. When you continue firing it's like...the drum beat. Like music."
It's not the first time music has been used to describe the gunplay in Woo's movies. While candidly bloody in his approach to violence, Woo's trademark shoot-outs -- which in some films have gone on for as long as 30 minutes -- invariably have a sense of orchestral movement. Like a heavily-armed ballet, the characters in his movies dance, duck and discharge their weapons as if choreographed to Tchaikovsky.
"I was so much fond of musicals when I was a kid," he says in his methodical and slightly reserved English. "I like to use visuals to tell a story, rather than the dialogue. So when I'm shooting a scene, I'm so much concerned about the lighting and the camera movement -- how to make the scene more moody. I never liked long dialogue. I feel like I'm painting, not making a film."
Like a painter, Woo has a distinct visual style that began to develop in the 1970s when he was turning out assembly-line fight pictures for the hungry Asian Kung Fu market. He also directed a string of successful comedies and even set a Cantonese opera to film in 1975.
But Woo had an itch to make a gangster movie. "I always like to make a movie like Humphrey Bogart," he remembers. "That was my favorite."
In 1983 he changed studios and began work on the pounding Hong Kong thrillers that put him on the cinema map.
In 1989 he directed "The Killer," a complex chase story about an obsessed cop pursuing a professional assassin who has made himself vulnerable by helping nurse a beautiful woman he accidentally blinded during a botched hit.
Largely considered his most passionate work, through the course of the film the killer and the cop discover they have much in common, like loneliness, nobility and determination.
Emotions tend to run high in Woo's movies. His heroes and villains are not the heart-of-stone loners that populate American action films. After two Hollywood projects ("Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow") that he says were complicated by studio politics, Woo considers "Face/Off" a return to his brand of complex, character-driven morality plays that just happen to feature enormous shoot-outs.
"Audiences want to see real feelings, real people," Woo says in explaining why his films, while far exceeding the physical requirements of the action genre, are dense with recurring themes of redemption, regret and sacrifice.
Woo says the "Face/Off" script started out as an effects-heavy futuristic tome with somewhat cardboard characters.
"The first draft was frustrating. I told the studio I love the concept, but I want more character, more humanity. If there is too much science fiction, we lose the drama."
So he re-located the picture to present day and added to the back-story a reason for Travolta's FBI agent to have a monomania regarding Cage's terrorist. In the opening scene we find out the terrorist was responsible for the death of the agent's young son.
After an accident leaves the Cage in a coma, Travolta elects to surgically swap faces with his nemesis in order to go undercover (the two actors essentially swap roles). Woo sites the way the surgery scene developed as an example of how he encourages his actors to create strong emotions without the "long dialogue" he eschews.
"After the face operation," Woo says, "when Nic Cage is seen taking off the bandages and looking in the mirror, he is getting pain, but laughing. He hate to look at himself (with this killer's face) and he smashed the mirror.
"Suddenly, while we're shooting, he turned and yelled and screamed at his doctor. That wasn't in the rehearsal. That came from his own instinct. At that moment, suddenly he feel like he need to scream at those people and I was shocked. It feels so great."
Woo sings the praises of both Cage and Travolta, an actor he also worked with on "Broken Arrow."
"These two gentlemen, they work together so well. They respect each other. They learn from each other. They both spend a lot of time to develop a character, to create and design something they can learn from each other" since, because of the face-swapping, both actors play both roles.
But don't think for a second that weighty emotion and attention to character take any screen time away from the bellicose action in a John Woo flick.
He has become famous for emblazoning his fight scenes with gratuitous impossibilities -- bottomless rounds of ammunition, guys who get shot a dozen times and still come back for more. Certainly he's not the first to ignore the laws of physics and medicine in this way, but Woo lends to his toying of believability a raucous charm that makes fallacies forgivable.
In "Face/Off" he crashes an exploding jet plane into an airport hanger and follows it with a 10-minute gun battle -- and that's just in the first reel.
Although heavily influenced by old Westerns -- his characters always have two handguns, often holstered like a saloon gunslinger -- there isn't a boardwalk showdown yet filmed that can hold a candle to what's become known as the John Woo Stand-Off.
First used in "The Killer," this visual calling card pops up in "Hard Boiled" (his last Hong Kong picture) and again in "Face/Off." Invariably it involves the hero and the villain standing face-to-face with their heavy-duty handguns trained directly on each other's foreheads. The scene is usually domintated by an uncomfortably serenity and thick with a seemingly never-ending tension that has built throughout the picture. To Woo it represents a balance of humanity.
"The stand-off is my trademark," Woo says with a Cheshire grin. "In my theory, I always feel no one is perfect in this world. There is no real good guy or bad guy in this world. You can see yourself in the bad people. The bad people can see themselves in the good people. So that's why I created the movement of the stand-off scene. No matter if it's a good guy or bad guy, they're all equal."
Woo's next project is a heist caper for Paramount with Chow Yun-Fat, the charismatic star of all his best Hong Kong thrillers. But Woo confesses he'd like to try his hand at a genre 180 degrees from his beloved gangster movie.
"Yeah, I'm dreaming to make a musical," he says with a nervous smile. "I wish I could make a movie like the 'West Side Story'." John (Travolta) and I have been talking (about) trying to work on a musical together."
Now that would be something to see.