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The 10 Best John Woo Movies

25 December 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Panos Kotzathanasis

hardboiled

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)

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)

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)

Face Off

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)

Last Hurrah For Chivalry

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)

bullet in the head

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.

 

 

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  • Johann S.

    I will always love The Killer. I reminds me of those 90’s-days. When, as a kid, I saw those international kung-fu and action-movies on television.

    • Panos Kotzathanasis

      I know exactly the feeling Johann

  • Pingback: The 10 Best John Woo Movies | roberto cimatti()

  • Jules F. Melo Borges

    What the…
    Face/Off should be at least 3º.

    • Woo

      With another other director maybe. But Woo’s films are so good that Face/Off is on the lower end of the list.

  • Andre Troesch

    My top ten would look more like this

    10) Broken Arrow (1996)
    9) Hand of Death (1976)
    8) Red Cliff (2008)
    7) The Killer (1989)
    6) Face/Off (1997)
    5) A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
    4) A Better Tomorrow (1986)
    3) Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
    2) Bullet in the Head (1990)
    1) Hard Boiled (1992)

  • Jacob Lyon Goddard

    Woo’s one of those directors that everyone loved until people started ripping him off.
    Woo was the second coming until Micheal Bay showed up.

  • Cinema Phenomenology

    5 Face/Off
    4 A Better Tomorrow
    3 Hard Boiled
    2 The Killer
    1 Bullet in the Head

  • Woo

    This is by far the best top 10 list of Woo’s I’ve seen. Too often I am thinking “Have you even seen his HK films?” but you clearly have. Now I have lot yet seen Just Heroes, Once a Thief or Hand of Death but here is my top 10.

    10) Broken Arrow. This is #10 by default. If we are counting Red Cliff as one movie then I have only seen 11 Woo films and this is better than Mission Impossible II! I did like this as a kid as I like Travolta a lot and I loved Christian Slater growing up thanks to him in True Romance and Heathers. This doesn’t hold up and is just a standard action movie.

    9) Hard Target. Not his best US movie but the one that feels most like a Woo movie. Obviously the production has made hard for him with people including JCVD trying to undermine him, but there is still a lot to enjoy here and the end shoot out is great. JCVD and Butler let the movie down though. Hopefully we will get to see the mythical directors cut someday.

    8) Last Hurrah for Chivalry. Try to ignore those horrible sword sound effects and you will see the genesis to his Heroic Bloodshed genre here. The two leads form quite the bromance that would become such a defining trait in all of his HK movies from A Better Tomorrow onwards. The fights in this movie are simply stunning with the sleeping Buddha being the most memorable highlight.

    7) A Better Tomorrow II. Incredible shoot-outs but little else? A bit harsh perhaps but the shoot-outs in Woo’s films are always the main attraction but this is the one movie that really needs them to elevate it above average. I would love to see Woo’s cut as this really feels like the hodge-podge cobbled together film that it is. Those shoot-outs are legendary though and really do make this film so watchable. Also the shoot moment where are four heroes leave the funeral in their black suits is sooo badass.

    6) Face/Off. So, so stupid. So, so fun. Everybody in this film seems to be having the time of their life here and you will too watching this. It doesn’t have the emotion behind it that Woo uses in his HK movies though, often too much, but it really is the best dumb action fun you can have.

    5) A Better Tomorrow. The movie that made Woo famous and turned Chow Yun Fat into an icon. The shoot-outs don’t compare to his most famous two movies or indeed the overblown sequel but the plot here still holds up in this terrific movie.

    4) Bullet in the Head. This is often said to be the movie that John Woo is most proud of and he should be. If you go into this with a bag of popcorn expecting to have a fun time you will be in for a shock. There are action scenes here, damn good ones too, but this is an emotional punch to the gut. A horrid, harrowing, beautiful movie that once seen will not soon be forgotten.

    3) Red Cliff. John Woo’s masterpiece. Make sure you see it in two parts the way it was intended. Everything about this movie is spectacular. The best use of a dove in any Woo movie too!

    2) The Killer. What can you say about this classic? The shoot-out in the church is simply sublime but it’s the emotion at the centre of the movie that will grip you and that end is tragic.

    1) Hard Boiled. I used to have the Killer at number 1 as the characters have more depth, but this is quite simply the greatest action movie of all time with Die Hard being the only challenger. Die Hard might be the best action movie due to it’s perfect script and a wonderful hero/villain dynamic, but out of all the films in the action genre Hard Boiled has the best action! Perhaps the three greatest shoot-outs in movie history are all in one film and that one tracking shot in the hospital might be the single most impressive camera shot ever put on film. This is so damn cool, so much fun and this is the movie you would show your friends to get them into Woo and HK cinema in general.