Regarded as one of the greats in ’90s action cinema, Chinese director John Woo has forged a filmography filled with guns, swords, and pyrotechnics. From his early days grinding away in the Hong Kong martial arts scene to his Hollywood blockbusters of the 90s, Woo has developed a brand of action that is instantly recognizable.
Whether it’s a physics-defying motorcycle stunt or a flock of doves inexplicably appearing amid a gunfight, you know a John Woo moment when you see it. The following are some of the most insane and high-velocity action sequences of Woo’s career and possibly of the entire genre.
‘Hard Target’ (1993) – The Warehouse Showdown
Chance Boudreaux is hired to protect a woman searching for her father in New Orleans. Things take a turn for the worst when they fall into the clutches of a group of men whose past-time involves hunting humans for sport.
Hard Target is Woo’s first American film and a take on the short story The Most Dangerous Game. While much of the action is relatively mild, the climactic standoff between Chance (Jean-Claude Van Damme with a stellar mullet) and the hunters finally takes things up a notch. Chance descends upon his enemies on a Mardi Gras statue of a swan and shoots each goon with at least twice the necessary amount of ammo, making for a delightfully over-the-top firefight.
‘A Better Tomorrow II’ (1987) – The Mansion Raid
Brothers Kit (Leslie Cheung) and Ho (Ti Lung) team up for an investigation of their former crime boss, Lung (Dean Shek). When the mission proves more than they can handle, they enlist the help of their late partner’s twin brother, Ken (Chow Yun-fat).
Despite rushing production to capitalize on the success of 1986’s A Better Tomorrow, John Woo still fires on all cylinders in this incendiary sequel. The film goes out with a bang when Ho, Ken, and Lung team up against traitor Ko’s men in his mansion. Samurai swords, explosions, and thousands of bullets are on full display in the dizzying mayhem, cementing Woo’s reputation for creating masterful third-act set pieces.
‘Last Hurray For Chivalry’ (1979) – The Temple Duel
In this John Woo wuxia flick, a man hires two masterless swordsmen to help him avenge his father. They eventually become friends and team up to take down the evil warlord responsible for reigning terror on their land.
Last Hurray For Chivalry was an early indicator of the controlled chaos Woo would inflict on the action genre years later. The extended closing sequence teams the two swordsmen up against a super-powered villain. It’s a show-stopping duel that combines action, fantasy, and even small doses of horror. The relentlessly inventive choreography and break-neck pacing leave little room to breathe until the shocking final blow.
‘Mission: Impossible II’ (2000) – The Motorcycle Chase
IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is called away from vacation to investigate a deadly new virus named Chimera. When he learns the virus is in the clutches of former IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), Hunt enlists Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend for help.
The least beloved of the Mission Impossible movies, Mission: Impossible II is nonetheless a brilliant John Woo action film. The best example is an exciting motorcycle chase where Hunt (with Cruise doing many of his own stunts) evades and kills truckloads of enemies. The scene wraps up beautifully when Hunt and Ambrose drive their motorcycles straight at each other, collide, then fly off the exploding bikes into a midair embrace. What’s not to love?
‘The Killer’ (1989) – The Church Shootout
When mob hit man Jeffrey accidentally wounds a singer by blinding her, he decides to retire, though not before earning enough money for his unintended victim surgery. When he is double-crossed by criminals, however, he is forced to work with a police officer to end things once and for all.
The Killer is a melding of everything there is to love about a John Woo movie, all of which can be found in the final frenetic shootout in a church. Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee share electric chemistry, trading winks, and nods as they mow down the bad guys. The contrast of explosive violence against the backdrop of a dove-filled church makes this bloody ballet of bullets and “bromance” one of the most definitive sequences of Woo’s career.
‘Red Cliff’ (2008) – The Battle of Changban
Red Cliff follows fierce warrior Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) leading up to and during the Battle of Red Cliffs toward the end of the Han Dynasty. The film is part fiction, part retelling of historical events, as they rebel against the overwhelming imperial forces.
This action-packed epic marked John Woo’s return to Hong Kong cinema, only this time on a much larger scale. Woo comes out swinging with a thrilling opening battle that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The kinetic choreography is mesmerizing, the highlight easily being Zhou Yu’s introduction, as he spears hordes of soldiers while a baby is strapped to his back.
‘Bullet In The Head’ (1990) – The Nightclub Rescue
Bullet In The Head follows three friends who grew up in a life of crime. When they are forced to flee Hong Kong, they find themselves in Vietnam, where they plan to build a new reputation. They soon find themselves in over their heads and are pushed to the brink by government and criminals alike, putting their friendships to the test.
John Woo’s criminally under-seen gangster / war film is a sprawling epic, fusing poignant drama and volatile action. The film truly takes off when our heroes stage the rescue of a nightclub singer from villainous gangster Leung (Chung Lin). In typical Woo fashion, this results in guns blazing and the nightclub being torn to shreds. From the quietly tense lead-up over a beer with Leong to the explosive escape, the sequence plays like a short film containing every skill Woo has in his arsenal.
‘A Better Tomorrow’ (1986) – The Restaurant Shootout
Ho and Kit are brothers separated by the law, Ho, a criminal counterfeiter, and Kit, an aspiring police officer. Tensions rise when Kit slowly learns of Ho’s occupation, and their bond is tested, with Ho’s trusted bodyguard Mark caught in the middle.
Though hardly as bombastic as Woo’s later work, A Better Tomorrow was an announcement to the world that Woo and actor Chow Yun-Fat were about to change action movie history forever. The film’s thesis statement is a classic scene with Chow’s Mark strolling casually into a restaurant, only to assassinate the gangsters inside. The scene is punctuated with whimsical music and an iconic shot of Chow placing a toothpick in his mouth mid-gunfight, something only he could make look so cool.
‘Face / Off’ (1997) – The Speedboat Chase
FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) is hot on the trail of terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) when a plane crash leaves Troy severely injured. Archer gets surgery to replace his face with Troy’s to go undercover in Troy’s operation. After the surgery, however, Troy wakes up and forces the surgeon to complete a second surgery, giving him the face of Sean Archer.
With Face / Off, Woo takes his obsession with the cop / criminal dynamic to new heights, giving audiences the wonderful conceit of lead actors Travolta and Cage playing each other. Needless to say, wild confrontations ensue, not least of which is a high-octane speedboat chase. Woo makes good use of the Hollywood budget, with plenty of explosions and a climax that sends the leads (or their stuntmen, rather) flying off a boat and into the air.
‘Hard Boiled’ (1992) – The Hospital Shootout
When saxophone-playing cop Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun-fat) loses his partner in a shootout with gangsters, he begins investigating the assailants’ gun-smuggling ring. He eventually joins forces with an undercover police officer, and they fight their way to the head of the criminal organization.
Hard Boiled sets the bar high from the start with its opening gunfight in a teahouse, but the set pieces only expand from there. The grand finale sees the two heroes (Chinese superstars Yun-Fat and Tony Leung) confront a hospital full of hostage-taking gangsters. While the resulting violence essentially occupies the entire third act, the centerpiece is a thrilling three-minute-long tracking shot of the duo gunning down dozens of henchmen. It’s an epic showcase of chaotic carnage (and, of course, male bonding) that ranks among the director’s greatest achievements.
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