b. September 22, 1946 (birthdate as stated on passport), Guangzhou, China

While several filmmakers have become synonymous with specific genres, few have carved out as inimitable and identifiable a niche within that genre as John Woo and the action film. Yet this association, as prominent and distinguished as it is, discounts the other films Woo helmed throughout his decades-long, ongoing career. Moreover, Woo has himself resisted this narrow view of his cinematic field, stating he does not “feel comfortable” when people label him “an action director.” Still, he adds, it is not really an issue: “As long as people take away some other message or entertainment from my movies, whatever they call me, I don’t mind.”1 In any case, there is no denying Woo’s impact on the modern-day action film, even if this influence fails to encompass the entirety of Woo’s filmography and may superficially diminish the profound themes Woo explores in even his most bullet-ridden and blood-soaked features. 

It is also important to note that Woo’s eventually established dominance in the action domain was hardly easy to attain, or maintain. Born in late October, 1946, in Guangzhou, China (Woo’s actual birthdate, as well as the variations of his actual name, have been fluid), Woo’s early life was marred by hardship, from the upheaval of the Chinese Civil War and his family’s migration to Hong Kong, to periods of extreme poverty, homelessness, peripheral violence, and the death of his father. Fortunately, Woo and his family received aid and solace from local Christian organizations, a religious exposure that not only informed his enduring faith but helped stimulate his later penchant for Christian symbolism. It also resulted in Woo’s early consideration to join a seminary school and become a priest; this, of course—as it has been with so many filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, one of Woo’s idols—before he discovered the cinema. 

An instant and avid movie fan, openly indebted to the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Sam Peckinpah, Woo began experimenting with 8mm and 16mm film as a young man, directing several shorts. He accepted humble jobs within the Hong Kong film industry and, in 1969, was enlisted as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios. Two years later, he became an assistant director at the famed Shaw Brothers Studios, where he fell under the persuasive tutelage of the great Chang Cheh. By 1973, Woo was able to direct his debut feature, The Young Dragons, a promising early effort that foreshadowed his high-spirited potential with kinetic zooms, frame-filling close-ups, and fight sequences (choreographed by Jackie Chan) that are capable if not wholly exceptional. The film’s kung-fu/criminal premise is relatively standard, though its police-and-thieves dichotomy and its hierarchical struggles align well with what would become Woo trademarks. Initially titled “Farewell Buddy,” The Young Dragons took years to finish, but after some censorial haggling over its violent content it was released by Golden Harvest, with whom Woo then signed a three-year contract and directed subsequent films that included, among the more noteworthy, The Hand of Death. Set in the 17th century, around the time of the Ching dynasty, this 1975 film tells of a band of monks who rally together to defend their Shaolin temple from opponents led by an outcast disciple. The assessment of loyalties and devotion and the conflict of corruption and cohesion would likewise inform much of Woo’s work to come, and the film’s uniform choreography of combative units exhibiting assorted martial arts techniques and skill sets mesh with a swift plot advancement balanced by the requisite, intermittent fighting. Aside from a brief but notable early use of slow motion, other Woo trademarks are also evident, including the confidence of his heroes, the furious bursts of action, and the high-flying acrobatics.

The Young Dragons

It was not all instant action for Woo, however, as he also engaged with the broad comedies that were popular at the time. Although moments of humour would often augment his subsequent features, comedy has never been a trait for which Woo is best known (though he is by all accounts a jovial person), but with zany, screwball offerings like Money Crazy (1977) and From Rags to Riches (1980), he proved satisfactorily adept at delivering what was to be expected in this atypical genre. A comic lark revolving around lottery winnings, Money Crazy boasts a lively and often ludicrous blend of clever gimmicks, sight and sound gags, and comic strip foolishness while still finding time for exaggerated fisticuffs, a scheming criminal element, and some whimsical romantic effects. From Rags to Riches is another madcap, manic production where an imprudent man finds himself embroiled in a series of unexpected complications, culminating in a deliriously absurd mental hospital finale. But as played by Ricky Hui, this habitually hapless hero is nevertheless resilient and earnest, exemplifying, even amongst the laughable anarchy, two of the finer traits that later defined Woo’s action protagonists.

From Rags to Riches

During this time, there was also Follow the Star (1978); the first episode of the three-director omnibus titled Hello, Late Homecomers (1978); Laughing Times (1981), where Woo embraces the physical comedy of silent stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; and Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982), the third film in series about Lam Ah Chum, a character created by star Josephine Siao Fong-fong. Woo biographer Christopher Heard acknowledges this latter oddity as a rare instance of a female star and main character in a Woo production, even if the author also considers it “perhaps one of the worst movies [Woo] has ever made.”2 To Hell with the Devil (1981) is a strange, allusion-heavy amalgam of horror and comedy, which for Heard resembles “both ‘Faust’ by Goethe and the Dudley Moore/Peter Cook Faustian send-up Bedazzled (1967),”3 with, not for the last time in a Woo film, effusive Christian imagery. Of these comedies, Woo favoured From Rags to Riches, stating, “I filmed it exactly the way I wanted, using a lot of close-ups. I think I am good at creating a gallery of minor characters, which this film has a lot of, and I was able to create a sharp satire on different types of people thrown together in the same environment.”4

Princess Chang Ping

Woo could obviously handle these comedic efforts, for what they are, and could further diversify his portfolio with films like the earlier Princess Chang Ping (1976), a lavish, operatic melodrama that is certainly staid by comparison to his action films and is somewhat burdened by its histrionic effects, but evinces an impressive, mannered vision of war and romance; it is a tragic, emotionally potent, and decorative love story. But more appropriate in hindsight was Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1980), where amidst the clashing forces and skirmishes Woo also banks on key refrains of revenge, the vestige of a solitary individual with reputable skill, betrayal, and pride. The picture is colourful and buoyant, teeming with energy and Woo’s canny eye for staging and speed changes (humour also returns in the form of a warrior who routinely dozes off between strikes). Made five years prior but withheld until after Woo had made something of a name for himself—and after a process of recutting and reshoots—Heroes Shed No Tears (1986), Woo’s first war movie, began to ramp up the action even further in its occasionally brutal telling of Chinese soldiers enlisted to take down a drug lord.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry

As accomplished as these films are in their sundry ways, Woo felt he and his potential were languishing. He had begun working for Cinema City in the early 1980s and was tasked with menial studio duties or was beholden to the formulaic requirements of lacklustre films like the disappointing The Time You Need a Friend (1984) and Run Tiger Run (1984), two features shot in Taiwan. A significant change came when he accepted an invitation from producer/director Tsui Hark to direct A Better Tomorrow (1986). It was a crucial turning point in Woo’s career and signalled a monumental shift in the trajectory of his filmmaking. Covering the parallel and entwined stories of two brothers on opposite sides of the law—gangster Ho (Ti Lung) and police officer Kit (Leslie Cheung)—as well as Mark (Chow Yun Fat), Ho’s partner and an uneasy mediator between the siblings, A Better Tomorrow is a striking treatise on familial and professional duty, revealing for the first time Woo’s unabashed flair for self-assured bravado and the slick allure of an idealized underworld, all rendered with a proficiency that, based on much of Woo’s prior works, seems to have come out of nowhere. Showcasing Woo’s treatment of camaraderie and trust between allies and the unflinching determination of adversaries, the picture comes to life in a bold, brazen style with sentimental reflections and strategic action. Indebtedness, honour, the ruthless and tempting world of crime, and the promise of redemption underscore a film that concludes in the first of Woo’s wildly escalating shoot-outs.

A Better Tomorrow

Woo was reluctant to direct a sequel to A Better Tomorrow but ultimately agreed to do so in order to help friend and comedian Dean Shek, who was facing financial difficulties. Woo gave Shek a part in the picture and A Better Tomorrow II (1988) picks up a year after its predecessor, where Kit is now an inspector, Ho is imprisoned but given a chance to commute his sentence by working undercover, and, although Mark is dead, his twin brother, Ken (still Chow Yun Fat), is residing in New York City. Bounding between Hong Kong and the United States, it is a rather contrived premise, albeit one expediently accomplished, and for Heard, it “isn’t a simple continuation of the story begun in A Better Tomorrow, but rather a fun-house exaggeration of the central motifs explored in the original.”5 Nevertheless, like the first film, Woo expertly exploits the clandestine tension and presents a series of remarkable action set-pieces. Perhaps more than anything, though, A Better Tomorrow II established Chow Yun Fat as Woo’s premiere alter-ego and the personification of his cinematic ideals. “Usually, when Chow Yun-Fat and I work together,” states Woo, “we put our real feelings into the characters. When you see Chow Yun-Fat in one of my movies, you see me. I put myself into his characters.”6 

In the two A Better Tomorrow films, Chow Yun Fat is compassionate and disciplined, cool and poised, subject to convincing bouts of despair and gifted in the nimble physicality of Woo’s active demands. And he and Woo would never be the same after the release and international acclaim of The Killer. In this 1989 action extravaganza, one of the unrivalled exemplars of the genre, Chow Yun Fat plays polished, efficient hit man Ah Jong, who, after accidentally damaging the eyesight of a nightclub singer (Sally Yeh), attempts to reconcile his guilt with his commitment to the job and his flight from Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee). The cop and criminal are incrementally, begrudgingly, then heartily allied in their united cross-purposes, but it is Ah Jong who best represents the type of anti-hero, or hero, Woo so appreciates. The film itself is a superlative merging of the sacred and the profane, exemplified in its church-bound opening and closing, a setting with psychological and spiritual repercussions. “The killer is a man who does bad things, but he wants to be good,” Woo stated. “That’s why I put him in a church at the movie’s beginning. He is fed up with killing and he wants to stop.”7 Ah Jong is bound by a code of honour, meticulous in his illicit trade and devoted to those very few individuals he cares for, and these character facets are what permit Li Ying to see the other side of this ostensibly “bad man,” reaching a mutual point of admiration or at the very least understanding. “I always wanted to make movies with noble themes about human values,” remarks Woo. “No matter if you consider it action or drama as long as you take from it a noble message about brotherhood, loyalty, love, and honor, then I have shared with you the values that I hold dear.”8 Complimenting Ah Jong’s conduct is the equally purposeful form with which Woo animates The Killer. It is an astonishing, unprecedented visualisation of violence, one that is beautiful, disturbing, exhilarating, and above all, extremely stylized. “I choreograph action like you’d design a dancing sequence in a musical,” said Woo, who long admired musical films. “I have a sense of beauty and the rhythm of the action, the atmosphere and the action’s emotional arch. Everything is clear in my mind before I shoot. But, like a musical, the rhythm and movement have to be filmed as precisely as you’ve thought it out.”9

The Killer

Woo again came to the aid of a friend, this time mentor Chang Cheh, when he agreed to direct Just Heroes in 1989, essentially as a fundraiser for the aging master. This film, a solid feature though not at the level of The Killer, wastes little time getting to the action with an immediately hostile engagement and from there continues to encompass most of Woo’s burgeoning cinematic assets. The ensuing intrigue is volatile and its passing-of-the-torch narrative involving a seemingly solidified family unit of gangsters and the inner workings of a traitorous power struggle is augmented by Woo’s harmonious integration of natural elements like fire, rain, and wind to serve a dynamic visual and dramatic purpose. 

Having once balked at Tsui Hark’s proposed idea for another Better Tomorrow sequel (which Hark directed himself in 1989), Woo had considered a possible prequel, situating the same characters decades earlier during the period of the Vietnam War. This, instead, became the genesis for 1990’s Bullet in the Head, which follows three friends played by Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung, and Waise Lee as the headstrong young men become fugitives from the police and a band of neighbourhood gangsters. They flee to Saigon where the tumult of 1967 Vietnam defies their relationship in what is arguably Woo’s ultimate test of solidarity. Made a year after the Tiannamen Square Massacre and clearly influenced by Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Bullet in the Head is a semi-autobiographical portrait of confusion and chaos and is one of Woo’s personal favourites. As the eager acquaintances become tempted by the potential for easy money and fall increasingly in over their heads, their desperation triggers a troubling descent into a world ravaged by violence and duplicity. It is a visceral and at times quite alarming portrait of the harsh realities besieging its historical backdrop.

Bullet in the Head

Woo next reunited with Chow Yun-Fat for Once a Thief (1990), a comedic contemporary feature about three orphaned youths who grow up to become art thieves operating under the guidance of a foster father figure. A light-hearted caper that Woo envisioned as nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s jaunty thrillers and to the spirited love triangle of François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), the film is an escapist undertaking, a high risk, high reward concoction of felonious talents, diverging motives, and good-natured comedy. Hard Boiled, by comparison, is a full-throttle action spectacular with one jaw-dropping sequence after another, climaxing with a half-hour hospital shoot-out accented by a nearly three-minute single take. In this 1992 masterpiece, Chow Yun-Fat turns in another superb, quintessentially Woo performance as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, who eventually partners with Alan, an undercover cop played by Tony Leung, to vanquish a corrosive criminal operation. Hard Boiled is fulsome in its sudden eruptions of violence and unrelenting ferocity, but at its heart is another tale of loyalty and the precarious connectivity between friends and foes alike. Woo’s penchant for the doubling of characters in dual and/or duelling situations leads, on one hand, as Kenneth E. Hall argues, to an “unapologetic, even simple romanticism.”10 On the other, as Hall also notes, this emotional, psychological core is what defines the best of Woo’s work as action movies “with a difference.” “They focused on soulful, reluctant heroes with the integrity of samurai warriors or Chinese knights,” writes Hall. “Frequently they were outlaw figures, but that fact was peripheral to their basic self-consistency and their chivalrous conduct toward others.”11 

That said, these same films are also flashy, gory exercises in carefully processed pandemonium, nowhere more so than in Hard Boiled with its unity of space, its allocation of figures within the frame, and its riotous carnage. Though Woo has repeatedly declared himself “a peace-lover,” stating he hates war and hates “to see people killing each other,”12 his flair for fierce dexterity is, when he is operating in full force, undeniably graceful. But for some, it sends the wrong message, a misinterpretation Woo is keen to clarify: “I’m not romanticizing the violence,” he stated, “I romanticize the hero.”13 Not surprisingly, Woo has likened this form of visualized violence to a musical, where the dance sequences that frequently appear in his work are as balletic as the acts of agile gunplay. “I’ve got a very strong feeling for the rhythm and the beauty of body movement,” Woo reflected.14

Hard Boiled

After the international success of The Killer and Hard Boiled, particularly in America, it was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would come calling. And when it did, Woo answered. He emigrated to the United States to helm 1993’s Hard Target, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle about disinclined hero Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), who comes to the aid of a woman (Yancy Butler) whose father was killed by a group of men paid to hunt homeless veterans for sport, a disgraceful venture headed by Fouchon (Lance Henriksen). Woo’s first American outing proved to be a complicated and difficult transition, burdened by studio supervision and interference and resistance from Van Damme, who struggled to adopt Woo’s preferred action technique—filled with firearms and exuberant stunts—over his own fondness for hand-to-hand martial arts. Nevertheless, Hard Target has its shining moments, enough to make it an entertaining opening into Woo’s American period even if it is a compromised entry (an initial NC-17 rating resulted in studio manipulation and excised footage). Following a three-year lull, Woo’s next Hollywood feature, Broken Arrow (1996), fared better at the box office but offers less of what had to this point characterized a John Woo film. John Travolta and Christian Slater star as Major Vic Deakins and Captain Riley Hale, United States Air Force pilots who set out to test a stealth bomber carrying two nuclear weapons, only to have Deakins betray his charge, sabotage the mission, and set up a hazardous trek through the Utah desert in search for the missing armaments. Woo embarked on Broken Arrow with the best of intentions, arguing it was “easier to grab Broken Arrow than spend a couple years developing something. And it was also a movie that would give me some experience with special effects.”15 But the film’s large budget and its dependency on these very special effects also translated into further studio oversight. All the same, Woo was able to sufficiently explore the dynamics of military professionalism and discipline while continuing to survey the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings for power by men devoted to violence, equipped with the most dangerous tools of violence. Broken Arrow is, in the end, a patchy brew of explosions, shoot-outs, and chases; its sense of movement and pacing is as calculated and propulsive as it is methodically, almost tediously prolonged. 

The commercial success of Broken Arrow opened numerous possibilities for Woo, and his next outing was, curiously enough, a remake of Once a Thief as a 1996 television pilot shot in Vancouver. With the mounting animosity between adopted siblings (this time played by Ivan Sergei, Sandrine Holt, and Michael Wong) and a vast criminal enterprise with an international reach, it was surely familiar territory for Woo, perhaps even comforting after the struggles of Hard Target and Broken Arrow. He stated the effort was “pretty much the same story [as the original film], and the action sequences are basically the same, but funnier. This time I focused more on the love story.”16 The immediate antagonism is also more obvious than Woo’s earlier feature and the characterizations (and acting) are comparatively uninspiring. This Once a Thief has action, but that is about all, and even that is significantly toned down. 

The same could not be said for Woo’s following film, which revels in its entertaining excesses. At first, Woo rejected the script for Face/Off (1997), but once the screenplay had been acceptably adjusted to suit his needs, the film became one of his most outlandish and stylish, and one of the most popular action films of the decade. Taking the omnipresent Woo theme of adversarial doubling to a surgical extreme, Face/Off pits terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) against law enforcement agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), as Archer seeks revenge for the death of his son at the hands of Troy. In a delightfully convoluted set-up, the two men literally exchange faces as each adopts the physical guise of the other to meet their respective aims. Nominated for an Academy Award (sound effects editing), Face/Off is deliberately flamboyant and Woo’s action choreography has seldom been as hyperkinetic. But he also preserves the fundamental moral quandaries that enhance many of his films, as well as the Christan symbolism (those ubiquitous white doves). The film, Woo said, fit his style and suited his philosophy in life: “My theory is there are no really good guys or bad guys in this world, so good and bad is always like a mirror. I always believe that all the very good guys have some kind of warts, so that’s reflected in the characters.”17 But this representation of good and bad did not come easy in Hollywood, where the black and white depiction of heroes and villains was deemed to be of vital importance. Woo lamented that in his Hong Kong films, his heroes “can be just as ruthless as my villains. But here [Hollywood] if the villain and the hero confront one another and the villain runs out of bullets, the hero cannot shoot him unless the villain picks up a knife or a club.”18


After the triumph of Face/Off, Woo made the unusual decision to again venture into television by directing Blackjack (1998), another ill-fated TV pilot. Contrasting with the exuberance of Face/Off and whatever ethical predicaments may exist in that film, this conventional release has Dolph Lundgren as former U.S. Marshal Jack Devlin, who is assigned to protect a young girl whose father is menaced by Russian mobsters. Suffering from a debilitating visual impairment (following a grenade explosion, he is stricken by the colour white), Jack expresses a degree of vulnerability and, to his credit, Lundgren conveys a sympathetic kindness, but Blackjack basically relies on the action star’s scowling prowess as he takes down an unremitting horde of black-clad bad guys (at one point with a roundhouse kick … as he carries the young girl on his back). As a Woo protagonist, though, Jack is typically responsive and quick-thinking under fire, and Woo effectively implements his trademark slow motion for the action scenes as well as moments of contemplation—as a way to underscore a viewer’s identification with a character while also enhancing the aesthetic, this emotional application of a reduced speed is an underrated use of the device seen often in Woo’s work to emphasize inner consideration, but it is often slighted in favour of its slowed down, purely action counterpart. 

That Woo was able to imbue even a film like Blackjack with instances of stylistic flourish was a testament to his durable devotion to cinematic exhibition. Still, he felt limited by the strictures of Hollywood filmmaking, later reiterating he “never knew there were so many rules in Hollywood, you know, like the way the hero has to behave is rigidly set out. The hero has to be a straight person. He’s got to be straightforward. He cannot shoot a guy with more than two bullets. I started to lose the fun of making a movie. The fun for me in making a movie is that you can do anything and everything according to your own feelings and imagination.”19 But the desire was there, and Woo was able to embrace the imaginative potential of his vision when he was beckoned by Tom Cruise to direct Mission: Impossible II (2000). This was a property heavily invested in by Cruise, who had and would continue to devote his energies into the continuing adventures of super spy Ethan Hunt. With an established character thus in place, a major star attached, and a hefty budget, Woo applied his superlative directorial signatures in an espionage tale of biotechnology, deception, and death-defying stunt work. M:I-2 also has Dougray Scott as an archetypal villain and Thandie Newton as Ethan’s savvy, thieving love interest, and from the film’s high-speed car chase turned vehicular courtship to its motorcycle aerobatics, Woo’s formal tradecraft is prolifically on display.

Mission: Impossible II

Woo teamed up with another major star for 2002’s Windtalkers, where he reunited with Nicolas Cage for a World War II drama about a Marine (Cage) assigned to protect a Native American soldier (Adam Beach) who can surreptitiously communicate via the Navajo language. The battle scenes are well-suited to Woo’s sinewy camera movements and his aptitude for large scale sequences of explosive hostility, though the wartime violence is considerably more horrific than in Woo’s standard action pictures and the surrounding conflict is, by necessity, more grounded. Like Lundgren in Blackjack, Cage’s Joe Enders is suffering from a physical impairment (a damaged ear) and there is, like many a Woo picture before it, an apprehensive partnership and the upholding of a larger, in this case patriotic, ideal. But nothing so lofty could describe the 2003 sci-fi thriller Paycheck, starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman in a complex conceit involving memory loss and high-tech manipulation, which Woo adopts with a sleek and sterile style to suite the technological conspiracy. Personal motives and the mingling of greed and mystery are perfectly functional, but the film feels half-hearted despite Woo’s proclaimed Hitchcockian ambitions and the sporadic instances of relatively orthodox action. 

Woo rounded off his American sojourn with Hostage, a chapter in the 2003 BMW-produced compilation film The Hire, starring Clive Owen, and he directed a television pilot, The Robinsons: Lost in Space, for the WB Television Network; based on the 1960s television series Lost in Space, the pilot was not picked up for further development. 

Woo’s time in America was a mixed bag of hits and misses, and he opted to return to his homeland to direct his next feature, the sweeping, two-part epic Red Cliff (2009), based on the 208 A.D. battle that marked end to the Han Dynasty and began that of the Three Kingdoms. With stars Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and a host of others, Red Cliff is a sprawling, magnificently executed spectacle, abounding with ornate detail, torrents of blood, and composite battle sequences. The familiar Woo motifs of duty, honour, expertise, professional admiration, and faithfulness are dispersed amongst scenes of tactical battle formations and wartime politics. The film presents intriguingly divergent perspectives on the prevalent conflict and, particularly with its lengthened runtime, the assorted relationships are developed to express the inevitable infighting and forged allegiances. The logistical practicalities of such an ambitious production seemed to suit Woo well, and he applied this talent for bravura set pieces and the intricate interplay of a sizeable cast to another two-part feature, The Crossing, which was released in 2014 and 2015. This star-studded production, in which the most prominent characters ultimately become passengers on board a Taiping steamer that sank in 1949, begins in 1945 with the bloody bedlam of war. Featuring two of the finest female performances in any Woo film, by Ziyi Zhang and Hye-kyo Song, this is Woo at his most romantic, embracing a visual tenderness and delicacy that frequently contrasts with his depictions of hardship and social unrest. The far-reaching scope of the picture encompasses a narrative that is engrossing and mournful, and its intrepid historical rendering is as effectively realized as its more lyrical, intimate details.

Red Cliff

Woo’s most recently released film was 2017’s Manhunt, a crime picture involving corporate conspiracy and murder. Shot in Japan and released on Netflix, the film was something of a return to form for Woo, with a high-gloss, florescent sheen, and crisp, almost restless mobility. With Stephy Qi and Ha Ji-Won, it also proves that women can be just as adept as men when it comes to Woo’s action scenarios, and its entwinned and overlapping assembly of professional pursuits is tense and dynamic. Though it may lack the groundbreaking fight choreography of earlier Woo features, Manhunt still stresses his endorsed concerns of trauma, resolve, and physical endurance. 

Next for Woo is Silent Night, a revenge tale and his first American film since 2003, which is slated for release in 2023 and is supposedly dialogue-free. “The whole movie is without dialogue,” Woo explained. “It allowed me to use visuals to tell the story, to tell how the character feels. We are using music instead of language. And the movie is all about sight and sound.”20 It is an intriguing approach to be sure, seeming to push the limits of his cinematic capacity, and a proposed remake of The Killer, which has been teased for the near future, likewise suggests Woo may not yet be finished with the type of film that made him an international auteur and the preeminent purveyor of stylized action, and so much more.  

Select Filmography

  • The Young Dragons (1974), also writer
  • The Dragon Tamers (1975), also writer
  • Princess Chang Ping (1976), also writer
  • The Hand of Death (1976), also writer
  • Money Crazy (1977), also writer
  • Follow the Star (1978), also writer
  • Hello, Late Homecomers (1978)
  • Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1980), also writer
  • From Rags to Riches (1980), also writer
  • Laughing Times (1981), also writer
  • To Hell with the Devil (1981), also writer
  • Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982), also writer
  • Run Tiger, Run (1984), also producer
  • Heroes Shed No Tears (1986), also writer and producer
  • A Better Tomorrow (1986), also writer and producer
  • A Better Tomorrow II (1988), also writer
  • The Killer (1989), also writer
  • Just Heroes (1989)
  • Bullet in the Head (1990), also writer and producer
  • Once a Thief (1990), also writer
  • Hard Boiled (1992), also writer
  • Hard Target (1993)
  • Broken Arrow (1996)
  • Once a Thief (TV movie, 1996), also producer
  • Face/Off (1997)
  • Blackjack (TV movie, 1998)
  • Mission: Impossible II (2000)
  • Windtalkers (2002), also producer
  • Paycheck (2003), also producer
  • The Hire (short, segment “Hostage”) (2003)
  • The Robinsons: Lost in Space (TV movie, 2004)
  • Red Cliff (2008), also writer and producer
  • Red Cliff II (2009), also writer and producer
  • The Crossing (2014)
  • The Crossing 2 (2015)
  • Manhunt (2017), also writer
  • Silent Night (2023)

Select Bibliography

  • Elder, Robert K., ed, John Woo: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005).
  • Hall, Kenneth E., John Woo: The Films, Second Edition (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012).
  • Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000).


  1. Elder, Robert K., ed, John Woo: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 69
  2. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 35
  3. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 34
  4. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 31
  5. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 53-54
  6. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 48
  7. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 68
  8. Elder, Robert K., ed, John Woo: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 70
  9. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 97
  10. Hall, Kenneth E., John Woo: The Films, Second Edition (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), p. 10
  11. Hall, Kenneth E., John Woo: The Films, Second Edition (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), p. 3
  12. Elder, Robert K., ed, John Woo: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. ix
  13. Elder, Robert K., ed, John Woo: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 78
  14. Elder, Robert K., ed, John Woo: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 121
  15. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 135
  16. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 158
  17. Elder, Robert K., ed, John Woo: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 141
  18. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 118
  19. Heard, Christopher, Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2000), p. 169
  20. Ebiri, Bilge, ‘My Films Had So Much Anger’ John Woo reflects on a career driven by action, ambition, and artistry, Vulture, July 3, 2023: https://www.vulture.com/2023/07/john-woo-on-face-off-mission-impossible-2-and-more.html

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.

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