How ‘Mozart of mayhem’ John Woo turned screen violence into high art

Nicholas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off (1997)
Nicholas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off (1997) - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Hong Kong director John Woo was once admiringly referred to as “the Mozart of mayhem.” Not only is this a nicely alliterative description (and catchier than “the Stravinsky of shoot-outs” or “the Gershwin of gunplay”) but it also sums up the career of the man who, perhaps more than any other director working today, reinvented action cinema in his own, poetic, image. From his (literally) all-guns-blazing 1986 thriller A Better Tomorrow to his gloriously unrestrained Hollywood high-point, 1997’s Face/Off, Woo, at his peak, became a brand name perhaps only rivalled by James Cameron in the certain knowledge that his films would be unmissable.

Yet, after the financial (if not critical) success that Woo received after he directed 2000’s Mission: Impossible sequel, he all but disappeared from view in the United States, with a couple of unsuccessful minor pictures representing the end of what once seemed a gloriously assured career. He returned to Hong Kong, where he continued to make films with some impact, but they never again enjoyed the crossover success that he once held. But after nearly two decades away, the mayhem maestro has come back to America with his latest picture, Silent Night.

It could be described as “English-language”, but it comes with a witty twist; it contains virtually no dialogue whatsoever in its 104-minute running time, meaning that its story of a grieving family man, as played by Joel Kinnaman, who takes on criminals to avenge the death of his young son is told almost wholly through visuals and music. It’s been hailed as both a return to form for Woo and a brilliant example of formal cinematic innovation. Although the film was made on a considerably lower budget than Woo once commanded, it is still rich in the same artful, violent action that his earlier films were steeped in.

Woo aficionados can once again be excited about their hero’s return to cinemas. (The film is in US cinemas now and will be on Sky Cinema in the UK just in time for Christmas.) And soon enough, his own remake of his classic 1989 thriller The Killer, this time starring Nathalie Emmanuel, will be released too, allowing audiences to see whether the now 77-year old director has – like his idol Martin Scorsese – returned to peak directorial form in what is surely the final act of his directorial career.

And yet, even if Woo himself has been absent, his directorial influence has been prevalent throughout the last three decades, giving him a fair claim to be one of the most influential filmmakers of our time. When Quentin Tarantino was working as an assistant in the legendary Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, he was not immersing himself in the often dubious action films of the Eighties – a period which he has subsequently dismissed as “the worst time for action filmmaking ever” – but in the Hong Kong epics of Woo, including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and the director’s jaw-droppingly excessive magnum opus, 1992’s Hard Boiled, which features a body count of an astonishing 307.

Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs is not usually viewed as an action film, but it contains endless allusions to Woo, from the characters walking in slow-motion at the beginning to the final Mexican stand-off between the surviving characters. It is not hard to see why the young director idolised him. He later said: “John Woo was a major hero to me at the time – I was just so influenced by Hong Kong cinema. To this day, I still think it’s the most invigorating cinema that’s made in the world… there had not been a Sergio Leone to come out and show us what we’d seen before but with new eyes until John Woo.”

John Woo and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible 2
John Woo and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible 2 - Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

Although there are moments throughout Tarantino’s subsequent career that are clear homages to Woo – such as the increasingly tense bar stand-off in Inglorious Basterds, or the insanely OTT finale of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood – it took his collaboration with Tony Scott, 1993’s True Romance, to make the debt most explicit. This was most evident in the grand finale, a no-holds-barred, slow-motion shoot-out between several different parties in a hotel that feels like a love letter to the great Hong Kong director.

And once Woo’s influence was felt in Hollywood in the early Nineties, it changed the face of action cinema. Whereas once the films of Arnie and Stallone had specialised in meat-headed, indistinctly edited action, MTV-trained directors such as Michael Bay and Tony Scott leant into the aestheticization of violence that Woo had paved the way for.

Like or loathe Bay’s work, there’s no doubt that The Rock, in particular, features scenes of balletic slaughter and tense Mexican stand-offs that owe a heavy debt to Woo, who, in turn, had drawn on influences as disparate as Sam Peckinpah, Jean-Pierre Melville and Scorsese. You would struggle to find a single shot from, say, Stallone’s Cobra that could be framed and placed on the wall of a gallery as a work of art. The Rock features dozens. In a post-Woo era, directors became aware that making action scenes look beautiful – as well as exciting – was now an option available to them.

Woo himself faltered in his early US career, with the 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target being heavily edited by a nervous studio who were unsure of what they were getting into, and the perfectly acceptable but anonymous 1996 John Travolta action thriller Broken Arrow failing to show the director’s full potential.

But just as his admirers may have been despairing of his being allowed to show off his particular set of skills, he returned triumphantly with Face/Off, a still-dazzling black comedy that combined jaw-dropping action scenes, done with dangerous-looking practical stunts in a pre-CGI age, with gloriously knowing lead performances from Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. Woo was protected from the baffled studio by the film’s powerful producer Michael Douglas, who fully committed to the lunacy, and it was a considerable hit. Woo’s future in Hollywood seemed assured.

It was then that the most explicit act of homage yet both paid tribute to Woo’s influence and stymied his career entirely. When the Wachowskis, then a pair of indie directors who had only made one picture, the lesbian noir thriller Bound, came up with the first Matrix film in 1999, it was a thrillingly innovative journey into the unknown that channelled Woo in both its jaw-dropping narrative bravura and the scenes of heroic bloodshed that left a million cinemagoers agape.

Clear influence: Keanu Reeves in John Wick
Clear influence: Keanu Reeves in John Wick - David Lee

The director himself was dismissive about his perceived influence, saying in one interview, “Watch [Jackie Chan’s] Battle Creek Brawl, then watch the Matrix. It’s the same damn movie. Take a film class, man.” Yet many others have begged to differ, and it remains perhaps the high point of his cinematic legacy; the Wachowskis were explicit about their debt, saying in a contemporary webchat, when asked if they admired him, “John Woo was a genius, John Woo IS a genius.”

And then it was all downhill for the genius filmmaker. Although Mission: Impossible 2 has some fine scenes of Woo mayhem, and his signature reliance on practical effects over CGI, it all felt tame and undemanding compared to the next-generation filmmaking of The Matrix. Even if the Wachowskis’ sequels underwhelmed, they were still far better received than Woo’s next two Hollywood pictures, 2002’s Windtalkers and 2003’s Paycheck. He soon left the United States and returned to Hong Kong, where only his Red Cliff pictures made any kind of impact on the West; he was said to be disappointed by the way that his career had failed to live up to its earlier potential.

What he did, however, was to leave his admirers to continue his work for them, which they proceeded to do over the next two decades. At first glance, Christopher Nolan might seem an unlikely disciple of the filmmaker, but both 2010’s Inception and 2020’s Tenet owe a significant debt to Woo in their action scenes, from Tenet’s gun-flipping and balletic shoot-outs and car chases to Inception’s legendary gravity-defying hallway fight.

Likewise, Nolan’s adherence to practical effects wherever possible mirrors that of Woo, who said while promoting Silent Night, “I guess some of the audience is already fed up with all of those epic CGI and comic book movies, and me as well.” Marvel, presumably, will not be calling him any time soon.

The John Wick series would not exist were it not for Woo and The Killer, and Keanu Reeves does a fine job throughout the films of channelling Woo’s favourite star Chow Yun-fat and his combination of existential yearning and gun-toting slaughter. And, lower down the artistic spectrum – if not the financial one – Jason Statham’s antagonist-turned-hero Deckard Shaw in the Fast and Furious films is allowed an explicit homage to the hospital-set ending of Hard Boiled in The Fate of the Furious, as he dispatches apparently endless antagonists all the while holding a small infant: just as Yun-fat did in the earlier film.

Chow Yun-fat in The Killer
Chow Yun-fat in The Killer - TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

There are many Woo signature techniques that have been imitated, or simply ripped off, more times than can be listed here. Heroes and villains alike firing two guns simultaneously; the use of classical music to counterpoint acts of extreme violence, often depicted in slow-motion; characters flying through the air without any apparent need for wings, often as they engage in two-handed gun battles with one another; and, of course, the multi-way stand-off, with characters forced to contemplate their destinies even as they pull revolvers on one another. Sometimes, these flourishes are used artfully, and at other times, they can seem nothing other than derivative.

Still, as the man responsible for their introduction in cinema makes a long-awaited, deeply overdue comeback, all hail John Woo, the filmmaker who said in a recent interview with the New Yorker, “I like old-fashioned movies, you know? Real cinema. There aren’t many movies like that lately.” At last, let’s hope, their era has returned.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.