Halfway through the nearly 4 1/2-hour running time of John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff,” two military tacticians pause to savor their momentary victory over the oppressive forces of the Han dynasty. It’s a scene that could serve as a handy summation of where Woo himself stands, two years after that career comeback — poised between the thrill of an improbable triumph and the anticipation of an equally bold second act.
In filmmaking, no less than in gunplay or martial arts, follow-through is everything, and Woo has wasted little time plotting his next moves with his longtime producing partner, Terence Chang.
“I don’t want to stop,” Woo says from his Beijing HQ. “I’m a pretty reasonable person — I have no other luxuries or desires, I just love to work and work and work.”
The martial-arts epic “Reign of Assassins,” a directorial collaboration between Woo and Su Chao-pin starring Michelle Yeoh, will be unveiled at the upcoming Venice Film Festival (where the helmer is receiving a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement). He’s also heading to Hollywood next month to cast “Flying Tigers,” a “Dirty Dozen”-style aerial-combat actioner about American and Chinese fighter pilots during WWII.
Further down the pike, Woo is hoping to line up A-list talent for his English-language remakes of two hugely influential action films: “Le Samourai,” the 1967 gangster classic directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of his premier influences, and Woo’s own “The Killer,” the 1989 Hong Kong cops-and-assassins showpiece that helped put the helmer and his perennial star, Chow Yun-fat, on the map.
With his sights also set on a pair of martial-arts sagas (one in homage to his Hong Kong forebears Chang Cheh and King Hu, the other a Japanese samurai movie in the key of Akira Kurosawa), Woo is striving for a tricky balance between Asian and Stateside productions — a freedom to work across boundaries of geography and genre — that has largely proven elusive until now.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Woo was at the fore of a cutting-edge generation of Hong Kong action directors with such hits as “A Better Tomorrow,” “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled” — films that established the hallmarks of Woo’s highly influential style: slow-motion gun battles and Mexican standoffs alongside unabashedly sentimental themes of purity, honor and redemption, often symbolized by doves. It’s a style Woo describes as “pretty international,” something the studios clearly recognized when they came calling.
Woo became the rare Asian filmmaker to make a successful Stateside transition, scoring major hits with “Face/Off” and “Mission: Impossible 2.” However, in a sign of how quickly the tides of fortune can shift in Hollywood, his next two pics, the WWII drama “Windtalkers” and the perhaps too accurately titled sci-fi thriller “Paycheck,” showed Woo struggling to break out of his action-movie mold, failing to connect with audiences or critics.
With his studio aspirations temporarily stalled, Woo set out to mount a grand, Hollywood-style production the only place he could — in Asia. The result was “Red Cliff,” a pricey gamble by a man who clearly had something to prove (Woo freely admits one of his reasons for attempting the film was “to try to help gain back the market”). But “Red Cliff” wound up justifying its hefty $80 million pricetag, smashing Asian B.O. records and inspiring some of the finest notices of the director’s career.
“It was my first experience making such a big movie in China, and it really proved that we have the same ability and talent necessary to make a big Hollywood movie,” Woo says.
“Red Cliff” also suggested an alternate explanation of why Woo’s Hollywood career took such a disappointing turn: Perhaps the problem wasn’t with Woo, but with Hollywood. While the director is loath to speak ill of his often-frustrating experiences working with studios (prudently enough for someone intending to work there again), he provides a clue as to why 1997’s “Face/Off” turned out to be the highlight of his Stateside term.
“The studio (Paramount) never gave me any notes,” he says. “Sherry Lansing told everybody all she wanted was a John Woo movie. So she let me do whatever I want.”
To hear him describe the other projects rattling around inside his head, there seem to be no limits on the kinds of movies Woo wants to make, although there are very real limits on the willingness of studio execs and financiers to play along.
“Once I was established as an action director, it wasn’t so easy to get a chance to make anything different.”
Woo says he would welcome the opportunity to work in an artier, lower-budget vein; among his long-ago shelved projects was a film about young kids running wild in Brooklyn (which Woo’s filmmaking idol Martin Scorsese was set to produce).
Most of all, Woo longs to make a musical — a logical next step for a filmmaker whose action scenes have always tended toward the operatic. It nearly came to pass in the ’90s, when Woo was in talks to direct the film adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” (though the producers weren’t so keen on his plans to alter Andrew Lloyd Webber’s songs).
“To make a musical is my lifelong dream. It’s hard, though,” Woo says, with a bit of a sigh that vanishes when he reflects on the entirety of his career. “I’m so glad to be a filmmaker, and to have gained so many friends in the business. I think I’m dreaming.”