John Woo’s never been an easy pill to swallow. Viewing his cinema almost feels an awkward experience: so rife it is with “heart-on-his-sleeve” earnestness, in both form and subject. Hitmen and cops that love one another, killers with codes of honor, secret homoerotic bonds and interconnections between the violent members of society. Essentially: a heightening of the usual cornball dramatics that make up action cinema. In praising Woo, most jump only to his celebrated feel for kinetics and inventive gunplay. Talk of his cinema is often accompanied with derisive shakes of the head, chuckles directed at this emotional upfrontness that every one of his films present.
Being earnest in cinema, in art, anywhere, has never been easy, and those who court it or dive in completely require a great deal of thought. When does it become cloying and maudlin? The history of the great earnest directors is a history of misunderstanding. The Farrelly Brothers, Sylvester Stallone, and M. Night Shyamalan largely remain jokes to serious film criticism, despite the various fascinations and wonders they bring to cinema. Only a handful really make it into the canon: Hayao Miyazaki and Charlie Chaplin come to mind (and Chaplin himself remains denigrated by many for his emotion, allowing the ludicrous “Keaton vs Chaplin” debate to continue). Without accusing the critic culture of at-large cynicism, it is still remarkable and slightly unsettling that such work is so quickly cast aside.
Which brings us back to Woo, who suffered the same fate as Wong Kar-wai (another of the “earnest canon”) upon relocating to America: translation. Suddenly the audiences could see and feel what he had been expressing—except in naked, familiar terms. In adopting the language and sheen of Hollywood, we could see Woo, plain and simple, if now diluted by the more restrictive environment of his new home. And it was too much for many, most, to take.
It’d be foolish for a defender to proclaim he lost nothing in the move. The scripts themselves are infinitely less personal (he didn’t write any of them), the casts he’s handled have been less consistent, and he has had noted problems with English on set (particularly during the Hard Target shoot). The films are generally messier, while at times being too glossy, too clean, compared to the more directly vicious Hong Kong work.
But it would be foolish to think of this as bad or uninteresting work. This is John Woo.
Hard Target, his first American film, as well as being a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, seems a particularly difficult first assignment for an import director, and bears signs of this difficulty. Van Damme’s line readings are garbled and at times downright embarrassing (never, ever make him a one-liner happy hero). The score is of a very particular kind of awfulness, and even the most dedicated Woo fan, willing to ride with much of his heart-on-sleeve antics, will be unable to suppress a chuckle. Woo remarked that when American test audiences saw his patented use of slow motion and dissolves, they laughed, and indeed at times he amplifies the supposed romance of his tone to a level of self-parody.
This is also, however, a film of deep heart, Woo’s heart, a heart for the poor and weak. The film’s world, while ludicrous on its surface, conjures a remarkable power and horror. It literalizes American, and capitalist, class warfare as a barbaric, crazed action plot: an organization that sets up hunts for rich men, the quarry being homeless veterans.
Lance Henriksen’s villain, and his sidekick played by the always fascinating Arnold Vosloo (a character who is key to a different Woo theme), are a predatory force, such blatant symbols for greed and class warfare—or extermination—that only Woo could truly bring them to life. This is the same filmmaker that had cops disguised as doctors, and criminals disguised as cops; that had his two heroes leap out of morgue units guns blazing, all in Hard Boiled. Woo works in images and ideas of straight-up potency.
Van Damme is the hobo from hell—the real hobo with a shotgun—an avenging angel for the masses, if you will. His ridiculous mullet, his Western-style introduction and gait, show a Woo fully engaging, with a childlike glee, with the “American hero.” Van Damme’s opening street brawl is balletic (if marred by hideous dialogue decisions), and twinged with undeniable melancholy trademark to both director and star. In Van Damme, it’s his shoulders, his face, his walk. In Woo it’s the feeling for the social strata of the poorer classes (Woo himself was raised in poverty, and by his accounts frequently beat up in the streets). This introduction is most certainly myth, but it is also tied deeply to the film and Woo’s connection with class reality.
Naturally, Woo doesn’t pass up the chance to inflate Van Damme’s heroics into absurd opera, culminating most spectacularly, ludicrously, with his motorcycle surf. In the spirit of always one-upping his prior sequences, Woo then climaxes the film with a warehouse shootout (echoing Hard Boiled) memorably and fantastically decorated with Mardi Gras parade floats which emphasize, as he so loves to do, the absurdly macabre and hallucinatory nature of his action arias. Early on in the sequence, he even gets a chance to drop one of his odder visual motifs: the exploding motorcycle.
The villain brings in a cadre of millionaires to assist in the hunting of Van Damme, allowing for a role reversal, as the class war becomes more equalized in the dense bric-a-brac of the warehouse. Because of the pain and exploitation meted out on the poor early in the film, this climax figures as one of Woo’s most cathartic sequences (as opposed to the “world out of control” climax of Hard Boiled or the tragedy of The Killer). Of course, Woo has always put too much stock in the machismo codes of his characters, and there is only so much catharsis that can be wrung from such a scene. Still, a homeless man blazing through a bunch of millionaires creates for a loaded sequence, almost making the film Woo’s They Live.
It’s hardly the most elegant statement, it’s hardly even a statement. Woo isn’t an intellectual filmmaker, but rather an emotional one. When confronting the issue of class warfare and poverty, he doesn’t possess the particular political articulateness required for definitive standpoints, but what he does possess is a sympathy and a knowledge of the pains felt. This is the same kid who hid in his neighborhood church to escape street beatings, who found himself in old movie houses. It feels as much a myth itself if it weren’t for the absolute sincerity. Woo is sincere, he is a filmmaker you trust. Few expressions in cinema are less duplicitous.