Woo hits target with film Director breathes new life into tired genre

August 20, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It may not be as pregnant a moment as the one in 1940 when Selznick brought Hitchcock to America to direct "Rebecca," or the one in 1923 when Metro brought Lubitsch over . . . but then again it may.

That is the arrival on these shores of John Woo, formerly of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, to direct "Hard Target."

Woo has been called by Newsweek "the greatest director you never heard of," but I suspect that's about to change. His "Hard Target" is a mind-blowing action picture, full of stunning pyrotechnics and stunts the likes of which have never before been visualized on the screen.

Can you top this? At one point, Woo's hero, Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, or actually, a very gutty stunt double) rides a motorcycle full-tilt boogie at an advancing car and then launches himself into a roll over the car as the car totals the bike. He spins off it, lands on his feet, turns, and blows it away. No, you can't top that. But Woo can. And does.

Thus it is an astonishment to meet the auteur of such visions and discover that he is a slight, nearly frail man with a shy demeanor and a kind of naive honesty to him.

His life story is equally astonishing. Woo, 47, fled Communist China with his family when he was 4 and actually spent some of his boyhood on the streets of Hong Kong, which may explain the passionate core of empathy for the homeless that runs through "Hard Target."

Eventually, a Western charity organization nurtured him in Christian virtue (as a result his films are full of religious symbolism) and filled him with notions of honor still stubbornly reflected in his films. He worked his way up through the Hong Kong film industry and in the mid-80s combined the acrobatics of the kung fu picture with the shoot-'em-up violence of the gangster picture to create what was almost a new genre.

World acclaim -- but not American -- followed. But at last Woo's legend, which only grew with subsequent films like "Hard Boiled," "Bullet in the Head" and the delirious "The Killer," got him the distinction of being the first Asian director of a big-budget American movie.

How does he do it? How can he reinvigorate what has been done so many times before by hacks and make it look entirely different and new?

"It's a gift," he confesses between bites of pasta in a Washington restaurant. "I think of it [action] as musical, as dance. I love musicals and when I see musicals, I just want the dancing sequences to go on and on and on. In our action, I enjoy the beauty of body movement and the purity of alternating rhythms between slow and fast motion."

The ammunition budget must be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars but Woo says with trademark simplicity, "I have never fired a real gun in my life."

The other controversial component of the Woo oeuvre is the gore. "Hard Target" had to be recut six times before it finally won an R-rating, a difficulty Mr. Woo is not terribly pleased about. But he clings to his notion that it's all right to "beautify" violence if you do not separate it from its consequences.

"We want to emphasize the impact of the images," he says. "If that's bloody, that's what it will be there. If I want to emphasize my hero's behavior, I will use them [exploding blood packs to simulate bullet impacts] to show his power. But what really attracts me is body movement -- I want to slow it down and emphasize its beauty."

Two years ago, after the world-wide success of "The Killer," Woo began getting offers. But he finally decided to make the jump to America with "Hard Target" "because all the stories I'd been getting were just martial arts things -- the stories and the characters were weak. 'Hard Target' was much stronger in these areas and had a better message -- the futility of man hunting man. And Chuck (Pfarrer, the screenplay writer, an ex-Navy SEAL) also provided some good action sequences."

The cultural shift wasn't as difficult as might be imagined; his family was already Americanized through his wife, a naturalized citizen. He already owned a house in L.A. and his three children were all born in the United States with dual citizenship.

Still, the hard part was giving up the total control he'd had in Hong Kong, where he is treated "like a God," and where he wrote his own scripts and had developed his own company of trusted actors.

"It was difficult for me. I've written the scripts to every movie. Usually, when you see my movies, you see me. But in 'Hard Target' I had to put myself into the center of a character I didn't really know, someone really different from myself."

Most refreshingly, he's so new to American film culture he hasn't learned the key concept of lying to the press. He actually tells the truth. Asked about Van Damme, he doesn't say, "Oh, what a wonderful man and a very gifted actor and a great humanitarian." He says, "He gave me a lot of respect, but sometimes he was just like a child. He wanted attention all the time. And he's so concerned about his image. He really wanted to change his image. But his body movement is good. So I used a lot of good body angles."

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