The 90s were a great time to work in video retail — for me, anyway. Quentin Tarantino made being a video store clerk cool, and the store I worked in for much of the decade had a primo selection of independent and foreign cinema. Our clientele appreciated us for this.
This made me want to keep up with the current filmmakers building reputations outside the boundaries of Hollywood: Mike Leigh, Lars von Trier, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodovar, just to name a few. One of the hottest directors during the decade, one championed by us film nerds, was a fella from Hong Kong named John Woo.
I admit, I jumped on the bandwagon for Woo late, after he made his American debut in 1996, with the film Broken Arrow. If you were a film nerd then, though, it was damn near impossible to avoid the buzz surrounding him.
This was partly due to the rising interest in Asian cinema in general, especially the chop-socky kind: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh were also crossing over to the Western market around this time (plus filmmakers like Ang Lee and Wong Kar-Wai, who appealed to the Film Forum/Angelika crowd).
|You will always see a moment like this|
in a John Woo film.
Tarantino made it clear his films owed a big debt to Asian cinema, and lo, his disciples did go forth and spread the word, from their churches of VHS and Betamax, to their customers, and the word was Cool.
Woo made high-octane crime flicks, with levels of violence that would make Sam Peckinpah gasp. Woo's films were among the first where I understood the importance of letterbox.
In those primitive days before every television was formatted in widescreen proportions, I remember hearing my video store co-workers use phrases like "aspect ratio" and "pan and scan" and "two-three-five to one" and learning from them that how you watch a home video matters, especially if it's a tape of a film by a certain kind of filmmaker, like Kubrick, or Cameron, or Woo.
Many film nerds from my generation agree that one of Woo's best is Hard Boiled, starring Chow Yun-Fat, the Robert De Niro to Woo's Martin Scorsese, a star who also crossed over to Hollywood.
In Hard Boiled (story by Woo), he's a loose cannon cop who inadvertently crosses paths with an undercover cop while investigating a smuggling ring. It's a grand guignol of blood and bodies falling in slo-mo and bullets, bullets, bullets. It's not for the faint of heart, but man, is it fun to watch!
In searching for pics for this post, I discovered that Woo wants to remake another one of his classic HK films, The Killer, for American audiences. (Lupita Nyong'o? Talk about an out-of-the-box choice!)
My fear is that Woo's brand of ultraviolence won't have any traction today, in an era where PG-13 films reap wider audiences than R-rated ones. Then again, given how crazy PG-13 films can get with the violence themselves, maybe it's not an issue anymore. I guess we'll find out soon enough.