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June 30, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 25 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The Next Mission
Director John Woo says he has made his mark -- now it's time to give action movies the boot

Asiaweek Pictures

Tom Cruise's star performance in Mission: Impossible 2 makes him the movie man of the moment. But the film's director, John Woo, is clearly emerging as the man of the future. With M:i-2 grossing more than $176 million in less than four weeks, the China-born, Hong Kong-raised filmmaker is pumped up enough to believe he can now make the kind of movies he has always wanted to do: musicals, westerns and perhaps a small-budget drama.

"When I first got to Hollywood, people saw me as an action-film director," he says. "All I was offered was scripts for that genre. But I don't want people to think that these are the only films I can do, and I don't think my fans would like to see me limited to that." The key to breaking free of other people's expectations, says Woo, is to prove you have plenty of what Hollywood is built on: star quality. "When the audience accepts you, you can switch to another direction." Woo believes Mission: Impossible 2 has achieved enough for the moneymen to be convinced he can now do other things.

Unlike the ultra-smooth motorcycle chase in M:i-2, it hasn't been an easy ride for Woo to get where he is. After a career in Hong Kong that earned him a cult following for work such as The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled, he packed his bags in 1992 and set off for Hollywood with his family, an embryonic reputation, a smattering of English and a savvy production partner, Terence Chang.

One of the earliest stories that made the rounds had Woo turning away a high-level executive at Sony Pictures who had asked him if he was interested in working with the studio. Woo later told Chang that he hadn't understood what was being said to him and felt that it was safer to say no. His English has improved since then. So have the projects being offered him. Woo started his Hollywood career directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target (1993). This was the first big-budget studio actioner helmed by an Asian director. Premiere magazine thought Woo had managed to make Van Damme look "almost look like a movie star." But it was a disappointment to Woo fans, mainly because the Belgian kickboxer reportedly insisted on his own edit. Woo finished up with having editing rights wrested from him by the studio.

Things improved, first with Broken Arrow (1996) and then with Face/Off (1997), which allowed him to put every John Woo trademark in one movie. Face/Off also cast him in the company of Hollywood A-list names such as John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. And, things don't get much better -- financially, at least -- than what is happening with Mission: Impossible 2, even if there have been rumors about creative differences between Woo and Cruise, his superstar/producer. Of late, both have been professing "great respect" for each other.

Despite M:i-2's financial success, reviews have been mixed. In the U.S. it has been called everything from a "feast of outlandish pleasures" to "The Tom Cruise Show." Certainly, there isn't much that fans of Woo's earlier Hong Kong movies haven't already seen. The slo-mo frames, the two-handed shooting and even the perennially startled doves are all there. M:i-2 could only be a John Woo movie. One Hong Kong reviewer lamented: "We're always happy for John because he outdoes others at the box office, but for once I wish that we could be happy for him because he has outdone himself."

That's not a view shared by Wang Man-ling, who has been writing on Hong Kong films for more than two decades. She thinks Woo's techniques are sharper, thanks to bigger budgets. "There are a lot of things he has done in his Hollywood films that he could not do [in Hong Kong] because he didn't have the money," she says. Despite the changes, she feels his trademarks have survived. "The romance, the emotions and relationships will always be there because that is a part of who he is and what his work is about. That doesn't mean he hasn't improved. You wouldn't think M:i-2 was made by a Chinese director."

But as Woo's budgets get bigger and bigger, there are questions about whether his creative freedom will be even further curbed as more studio executives breathe down his neck and actors enforce their expectations of how they want him to make them look. For Face/Off, Nicolas Cage wanted to appear like Chow Yun-fat in The Killer (complete with the long overcoat and sunglasses). With M:i-2, Cruise proved to be a Bruce Lee fan -- hence the flying kicks.

"That sort of thing isn't much of a problem," says Woo. "The only thing I have to do is make sure they don't do the same things. When I design their action sequences, I have to understand them personally. When I see Chow Yun-fat, for example, I see Alain Delon, so I let him hold the gun the way Delon did. With Tom [Cruise], I saw Bruce Lee when he does things like somersaults. On the bike, Tom reminds me of Steve McQueen. I get inspired by that. I just transfer all the styles of my idols on to my actors. Sometimes it isn't a matter of satisfying them; it's a matter of satisfying myself."

Woo's producing partner, Chang, says the need to prove box-office appeal has slowed Woo's creative progression from where he left off in Hong Kong. "M:i-2's success will certainly allow John freer rein in future. He is now recognized as blockbuster material. A lot of people have said that Tom Cruise has never looked so good." Whatever the truth of that, Woo's next film, Wind Talkers, will be far more serious -- and in Chang's view there is no reason it should not succeed. "Look at Steven Spielberg," he says. "He did the Indiana Jones action adventures, and yet he can do serious films such as Schindler's List."

Wind Talkers is a fictional action drama set in World War II. Starring Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach, it relates how a unit of Navajo field-communications soldiers uses a derivative of their Native American language to encrypt radio messages in the Pacific Theater. Says Woo: "It will be a big picture, but not a blockbuster. It's not only about war, but about how people can develop from adversaries to become friends." The budget is thought to be about $100 million (M:i-2 cost $125 million). But Woo seems less concerned about dollars than he is about change. "I cannot continue just doing action films," he says. "At the moment, I am contracted to MGM, so I will have to make their films. But if I find a good script, I will do it even if it means having to take a salary cut."

Apart from Wind Talkers, one of the projects Woo daydreams about is King's Ransom, an adventure caper that he is still hoping to make with old pal Chow. "I think a lot of fans would like to see us work together again," says the director. "I'm hoping that King's Ransom will help Hollywood see [Chow's] true quality and talent. A lot of people already recognize that he is a fine actor and not just a star. We need to develop from there."

For now, though, Woo has set himself a different task. As the first Asian director to make his own distinctive mark in Hollywood, he is hoping he will be able to smooth the way for others to follow. "When I arrived, there were a lot of stereotypes and a certain bias against Asians," he says. "I hope that through my films people will see our true nature." Another mission. Possible or impossible?

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