John Woo has set the standards for the action genre for almost 50 years, additionally introducing current world-class stars like Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung Chiu Wai.
His usual motifs, which include stylized, smooth characters and flying pigeons and his distinct action style, with the frequent usage of slow motion, chaotic fighting, and even the handling of two guns at the same time, have influenced the majority of the filmmakers of the genre, including Hollywood filmmakers.
Here is a list with his 10 best films.
10. Just Heroes (1989)
This particular film was shot in order to aid director Chang Cheh, who was broke, and John Woo directed part of it with Wu Ma responsible for the rest.
The script is similar to that of “A Better Tomorrow”, although evidently not of the same quality. The betrayal and subsequent death of a well-respected triad boss triggers a power struggle among his successors. Cheung Pak Wai attempts to discover the traitor and bring him to justice; Sou, who has been elected leader, faces unknown enemies who even assault his family.
A number of later Hong Kong superstars appeared in “Just Heroes”, including Stephen Chow and Danny Lee. However, the movie suffered due to its lack of adequate funding and the fact that it was shot in haste. Additionally, the melodrama overshadows the action, excluding the final scene, which is done in John Woo’s usual bloody fashion and is utterly impressive.
9. Once a Thief (1991)
Red Bean Pudding, aka. Joe, James and Red Bean are three orphans who grew up together under their adopted father, Chow, who taught them how to steal. Unavoidably, the three grew up to be high tech art thieves, terrorizing museums and galleries all over the world. Additionally, Joe and Red Bean are lovers.
However, during a heist that went terribly wrong due to a double-cross, Joe seemingly dies in a car accident. Red Bean subsequently finds solace in James; nevertheless, Joe eventually returns and a peculiar love triangle is formed.
John Woo, who abandoned his usual motifs of bloody brotherhoods for comedy and romance, based this film on his protagonists (Chow Yun Fat as Joe, Leslie Cheung as James and Cherie Chung as Red Bean), who were already local superstars at the time. Although it lacks in comparison with his masterpieces, he managed to produce an easygoing movie that had a pull on the audience, thus resulting in its commercial success, despite the almost total lack of violence.
8. Face/Off (1997)
Castor Troy is a notorious criminal who kills the son of a cop, Sean Archer, who subsequently becomes obsessed with arresting him, even neglecting the rest of his family. Eventually Troy is caught in an ambush that Archer set and ends up in a coma. The only solution to learn the scheme he has set in motion is for Archer to undergo a face-transplant surgery and assume Castor’s role.
Although evidently an action flick, “Face/Off” entailed a number of elaborate action sequences and Woo’s unique sense of humor. Both of the protagonists, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, seem to relish the movie, portraying each other not just as characters but as actual actors, too.
American audiences seemed to relish the role reversal between the two actors and its stylized and violent action scenes, and the film ended up as the 11th highest domestic movie in 1997. John Woo netted a number of awards for his direction, including the Saturn Award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
7. Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
Before John Woo turned his attention exclusively to gangster films, he shot a number of kung fu movies. This one was a tribute to his mentor, Chang Cheh, and was among the best of them.
His mortal enemy assaults Kao Pun during his wedding and although he manages to escape, his father dies during the attack. He swears to avenge him and subsequently asks of two master swordsmen to assist him. The three of them eventually become friends; however, Kao may not be who he seems.
Although its box office numbers were mediocre, “Last Hurrah for Chivalry” entailed a prolusion of Woo’s later style, chiefly through the rapid-paced swordplay scenes.
6. Bullet in the Head (1990)
Initially intended as the third sequel to “A Better Tomorrow”, this particular film suffered from the fallout between Woo and his long-time producer, Tsui Hark, a fact that resulted in Woo having to finance it on his own.
In 1967, Frank, who is on his way to Ben’s wedding, is mugged by members of a gang. The two of them decide to exact revenge; however, they wind up killing a member of the group. Hunted by both the police and the mob, they decide to escape to Vietnam, where they believe they can also earn a few bucks. Nevertheless, their decision leads to a number of dangerous adventures.
The Tiananmen Square incident had taken its toll on John Woo, who wanted to shoot a film about the corruption of the political world that results in authorities punishing the innocent. In that fashion, his two protagonists cannot live up to their moral standards, chiefly due to higher powers that eventually even corrupt one of the utmost sacred values in Woo’s universe: brotherhood. “Bullet in the Head” had a number of action scenes; however, there are even more dramatic scenes and they present a clear message: there is no justice in the world.
Due to its extreme drama and the pessimism that surrounded its script, the film was mildly received. Nevertheless, Tony Leung as Ben and Jacky Cheung as Frank gave competent performances in John Woo’s usual hyperbolic style.
The movie received nominations by the Golden Horse Film Festival and the Hong Kong Film Awards for its editing by Woo, who eventually won the award at the latter festival.