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Once hailed by action star Jean-Claude Van Damme as "the Martin Scorsese of Asia," John Woo was a legendary action director in the Hong Kong film industry long before immigrating to Hollywood to direct his first American film, "Hard Target" (1993). Reportedly the first Asian to direct a major Hollywood studio film, Woo made his name with action-packed, emotionally florid thrillers like "A Better Tomorrow" (1986), "The Killer" (1989), "A Bullet in the Head" (1990) and "Hard-Boiled" (1992). Enthusiastically embraced by English-speaking critics, Woo was a bold visual stylist who learned his meticulous choreography of movement, graceful camera moves and over-the-top violence from the likes of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Jean-Pierre Melville. Though soaked in blood, his films were marked by old-fashioned morality and chastely gallant attitudes toward women, while, even among villains, valuing friendship and loyalty. Woo remained an influential figure among a new generation of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who eagerly adopted his signature moves.
Born on May 1, 1946 in Canton, Guangdong, China, Woo was raised in Hong Kong when his father, a scholar and school teacher, decided that living under Communist rule was no longer tolerable. But his father was stricken with tuberculosis and unable to provide for the family, leaving Woo's mother to work construction and other manual labor jobs. As a result, Woo grew up poor, living in tiny shacks in the Shek Kip Mei slums. He was lucky, however, to have the support of his church and an American family, who paid for his schooling fees throughout his academic career. After losing his father to his long battle with tuberculosis, Woo set his sights on becoming a film director following a brief flirtation with entering seminary school and becoming a priest. Having grown up under the influence of François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, Woo was determined to bring a level of artistry to Hong Kong filmmaking, which at the time was sorely lacking in creative talent.
When he was 19, Woo joined a theater company that was established by the periodical Chinese Student Weekly and began making short films with borrowed Super-8 and 16mm cameras. Since there was no film school to speak of, he learned his craft by watching movies and making his own. Two years later, he landed an entry-level job as a production assistant at Cathay Film Studio, where he quickly worked his way up to assistant director. He left Cathay to join forces with the Shaw Brothers, a busy production facility where Woo was the assistant director for master filmmaker, Zhang Che, who taught the young aspirant how to put emotion behind the action of his films. Woo went on to direct his own movies with the hyper-violent martial arts actioner "The Young Dragons" (1974), which was produced by Shaw Brothers' rival, Golden Harvest. The production studio went on to hire Woo for more films, including "The Hand of Death" (1976), which featured a young Jackie Chan in a movie that gave him his first major exposure.
Over the next 10 years, Woo made almost a dozen more films for Golden Harvest; many of which were comedies and therefore pigeonholed him in the genre. He did, however, direct "Last Hurrah for Chivalry" (1979), which served as a precursor to his later heroic bloodshed films, which boasted stylized action sequences that were underpinned by dramatic themes like honor, duty and redemption. He went on to direct more insubstantial films - some of which he later considered to be cartoonish - before he finally set his sights on his passion project, "A Better Tomorrow" (1986), a low-budget, highly-stylized, ultra-violent action movie that came out of nowhere to shatter Hong Kong box office records and turn Woo into a top filmmaker. Starring Chow Yun-Fat as a destitute, semi-crippled gangster who tries to pull his old partner (Ti Lung), just released from prison, back into the criminal life. Added to the mix is the parolee's younger brother (Leslie Cheung), a fresh-faced police academy graduate gung ho on taking down a powerful crime boss (Waise Lee), who forces the convict to work for him. Woo's reverence for the poetic violence of his heroes Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese was on full display, particularly in a bloody restaurant shootout scene that called to mind Peckinpah's finest work.
After "A Better Tomorrow," which was credited with creating the modern Hong Kong gangster film, Woo found himself in the midst of a fertile period that would see his emergence on the world stage, while cementing himself as one of his country's greatest filmmakers. He followed up with an inevitable sequel, "A Better Tomorrow II" (1987), which at the time was panned by critics, but later grew into a cult classic held in the same regard as its predecessor. Sticking with the gangster film, he directed "Just Heroes" (1989), which focused on three adopted brothers engaged in a power struggle after their crime boss father is murdered. Woo next made what many fans considered to be among his best films, "The Killer" (1989), a stylish meditation on honor among violent men. The crime actioner focused on a hit man (Chow Yun-Fat) who accidentally injures the eyes of a young nightclub singer (Sally Yeh) in a restaurant shootout and decides to do one last hit to get the money for her surgery before she goes blind. Not a financial success in Hong Kong when released, "The Killer" nonetheless became a favorite among Woo aficionados once the director crossed the Pacific and found success in America.
Building off the artistic success of "The Killer," Woo directed "Bullet in the Head" (1990), an action thriller about three friends (Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung and Waise Lee) who go on the lam from both the law and the criminal underground to engage in the Vietnam War, only to run afoul of the North Vietnamese. Joining forces again with Chow Yun-Fat, Woo helmed "Once a Thief" (1991), a far less bloody and more humorous crime caper about a trio of orphans who grow up to be art thieves who are double-crossed by their criminal foster father. Teaming up with Chow Yun-Fat for a fifth time, which prompted British critics to liken their collaboration to that of John Ford and John Wayne, Woo directed what became his last Hong Kong film, "Hard Boiled" (1992), before crossing over to Hollywood. Once again, Chow Yun-Fat donned his anti-hero cap, playing a go-it-alone cop who joins forces with a high-ranking mob assassin (Tony Leung) who is really an undercover cop to track down a crime boss' chief rival (Anthony Wong). Though "Hard Boiled" was not as revered as "A Better Tomorrow" or "The Killer," it nonetheless earned considerable acclaim in the United States and elsewhere, helping Woo become Hong Kong's premiere director.
Having built up a considerable audience in the United States, Woo made the jump from his homeland to directing his first Hollywood feature, "Hard Target" (1993), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a down-and-out merchant seaman who helps a young woman (Yancy Butler) find her homeless veteran father. Unaccustomed to studio meddling, not to mention limits on violence and mayhem, Woo ran into great difficulties making his first American film. After a preview audience - well-stocked with Van Damme fans - jeered at the over-the-top action and Woo's use of hypnotic slow-motion, the film was extensively re-edited. Quite tame by Hong Kong standards, the film actually turned out to be a solid commercial success, despite the director's sour experience. Two years passed before he found a suitable script to make another film. Despite his stated preference for a smaller project, Woo was convinced to take on the $54 million "Broken Arrow" (1996), a pulse-pounding, non-stop actioner starring Christian Slater and John Travolta as rival pilots battling over two nuclear warheads in the Death Valley desert. In addition to working with high-profile American stars, the film allowed Woo to try his hand at a special effects-driven thriller. Though lacking the poetry of his Hong Kong work, "Broken Arrow" offered exciting action set pieces and took in moderate box office dollars.
Finding his footing inside Hollywood, Woo directed Travolta again, this time in "Face/Off' (1997), a blockbuster action thriller that boasted a rather ludicrous premise. Travolta starred as an FBI agent obsessed with hunting down a criminal mastermind (Nicolas Cage) who killed his son during an assassination attempt gone wrong. But when the notorious criminal threatens all of Los Angeles with biological weapons, the FBI agent undergoes an experimental surgery that allows him to pose as the mad assassin's brother. Despite the ridiculous storyline, Woo nonetheless delivered his all in terms of action sequences, gunplay and sharp editing. "Face/Off" also marked Woo's first bona fide box office hit in America. After signing a lucrative deal with Columbia Tristar in 1998, he went to work on his biggest blockbuster to date, "Mission: Impossible 2" (2001), starring the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Tom Cruise. Woo brought his high-flying action set pieces and tricky camerawork to the franchise, though nothing could save the paper-thin story about a rogue agent (Dougray Scott) stealing a deadly virus. Still, "M:I-2" was a smash hit, earning over $500 million in worldwide box office.
Hot off his financial success, Woo took some serious flak when he reunited with Nicolas Cage for "Windtalkers" (2002), a World War II action drama about a damaged Marine (Cage) tasked with safeguarding a Native American soldier (Adam Beach) capable of translating a secret code based on the near-dead language of the Navajos. The historical nature and importance of the material was badly suited for the classic Woo treatment of cartoonish violence and stylish camerawork. After several years of seeing his trademark visuals cribbed by countless other directors while failing to perpetuate his own creative success in Hollywood, Woo added his signature action touch to the Phillip K. Dick-inspired sci-fi thriller "Paycheck" (2003) starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, a moderately entertaining yarn about a man whose short term memory is erased. Unfortunately it underperformed at the box office. Returning to his homeland after several aborted Hollywood projects, Woo directed "Red Cliff" (2009), a sprawling historical epic that depicted the titular battle in 208 A.D. that marked the decisive end to the famed Han Dynasty and began the long Three Kingdoms period.
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Moved from Guandong provice in China to Hong Kong with his parents
At age 19, joined a theater company established by the Chinese Student Weekly, a periodical (date approximate)
Hired for the entry level position of production assistant at Cathay Film Studio
Worked his way up to assistant director; went to work for the busy production facility of the Shaw Brothers
Directed first feature "The Young Dragons"; produced by Golden Harvest, a rival studio to the Shaw Brothers' (date approximate)
Directed "A Better Tomorrow", the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong history; first collaboration with actor Chow Yun-Fat and producer Tsui Hark
American directorial debut, "Hard Target"
Helmed blockbuster action flick "Face/Off" starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage
WCG Prods. signed to two-year, first-look production deal at TriStar
Helmed "Mission: Impossible 2", with Tom Cruise reprising his role of Ethan Hunt
Reunited with Nicolas Cage with the WWII drama "Windtalkers" about Navajo code breakers
Directed Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman in the thriller "Paycheck"