The Essential Films of John Woo

Tom Jolliffe offers up an essential John Woo selection…

John Woo has been a little quiet of late. There have long been rumours but finally it seems that his The Killer reboot is being produced by Peacock. This comes hot on the heels of his “comeback” movie Silent Night which should be out some time next year.

To the uninitiated, John Woo was once considered a directing deity of action cinema. He’s made a lot of films, but hit a particular early peak when he transitioned from largely Wuxia films to making gangster films during a booming period in Hong Kong action cinema. Alongside Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, he was considered one of the most creative and genre defining directors in the business. Here are eleven essential John Woo films…

A Better Tomorrow

This gangster classic not only broke John Woo out in a big way, but it was one of the films which kick started a flurry of films like City on Fire (Ringo Lam). These are films which had a direct influence on a certain Quentin Tarantino. There wasn’t fantasy, mythology or the grace of wuxia driven martial arts, or even the comedy-centric frantic action of the rising Jackie Chan. A Better Tomorrow was filled with visceral, violent and bloody action scenes, but with Woo at the helm, a balletic artistry.

Further, it was also a prominent moment in Chow Yun-fat’s early career. He was cool, charismatic and enigmatic. Like many Hong Kong action classics, this still doesn’t have a definitive Blu-Ray era physical release. It was also known to have a number of different versions and cuts (with differing soundtracks). Whatever the case, it’s a brisk and brutal, action packed classic. Sequels followed, and although the second had its highlights, never came close.

The Killer

A big theme running through most of Woo’s cinema is honour in action. He usually has inherently flawed heroes/anti-heroes who must redeem themselves through heroic action (usually accompanied by doves flying in slow motion of course). The Killer pits a jaded hitman (Yun-fat) against the dogged but reckless cop chasing him (Danny Lee).

There’s debate about what Woo’s outright masterpiece is. Usually a three-pronged battle and The Killer is among the highest ranking in his CV. It’s just the right amount of melodrama, bolstered by exceptional moments where everything is played with great subtlety. Chow Yun-fat can dance between the two polars beautifully, and in one particular scene where he’s betrayed by a friend tells everything with the most crushed look imaginable. The Church set finale is as emotionally gripping as it is jaw-droppingly destructive.

Bullet in The Head

A gangster film partly inspired by Deer Hunter. Woo brought one of Hong Kong cinemas young rising talents and put him headfirst into the action genre. Tony Leung was just making a name for himself with Wong Kar-wai collaborations, but John Woo’s influence was just as telling for the young heartthrob who had the most unique charisma. Leung is perfect Woo fodder, able to convey so much without words and always retaining a vulnerability and sensitivity. The film has great action as you’d expect, and whilst it perhaps owes too much to Deer Hunter, it’s still one of Woo’s great Hong Kong works.

Hard Boiled

The two major talents of Woo’s early career came together for his last great Hong Kong action epic, before Hollywood beckoned. Tony Leung is the cop deep undercover in the criminal underworld. Chow Yun-fat is the reckless cop trying to bring the organisation down from the outside, unaware there’s an undercover operative within the criminal ranks. There’s lots of duality, emotional complexity and the classic growing mutual admiration between two men seemingly on opposing sides, who will inevitably team up to take down the bad guy (Anthony Wong).

Hard Boiled IS John Woo’s magnum opus. It’s the dream duo for its principal cast. It’s got the most simple yet honed through-line and it’s anchored by two exceptional performances. It’s Heat for the Hong Kong film world in many ways, with two titans coming together in something so meticulously put together. On top of all this, the action set pieces are awe inspiring, the like of which we’ll never see again.

SEE ALSO: From Hard Boiled to Soft Boiled: Why John Woo’s masterpiece will never be matched again

Hard Target

Hard Target is one of cinemas great transitional films. On the one hand it still retains so much essence of what made Woo’s Hong Kong cinema so enthralling (not least the craft in the action scenes) and on the other, it represents the genesis of the Americanised Woo aesthetic. Everything after this for Woo became almost a pastiche of himself.

Hard Target does The Most Dangerous Game with a mulleted Van Damme and Sam Raimi with a producers hat on. Van Damme played a big role in getting Woo, Lam and Hark into Hollywood (for better or worse). All told Hard Target, initially greeted with antipathy, has grown into something more, as it’s more appreciated now for its Woo-isms rather than being something Van Damme fans were initially bewildered by. JC’s fans eventually caught up of course, realising that this was far and away the most auteur director in the man’s CV.

The film boasts a sensational villain roster of Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo. It also has Woo’s most studio unfettered, full tilt action (stateside). The gun play is stunning. Woo’s balletic grace with shooting and cutting action also made Van Damme’s patented kicks look better than ever. Van Damme had already riffed Woo in Double Impact, but Hard Target showed the difference between a pretender and the real thing.

Broken Arrow

John Travolta was still riding the wave after Pulp Fiction. Christian Slater still had a big screen presence. John Woo found himself able to cement his place in Hollywood studio pictures with this 20th Century Fox tentpole. A lot of faith was being placed in Woo, jumping up another budget level from his Van Damme centered American debut.

The result isn’t as wildly thrilling as Hard Target and there’s just a sense that Woo is being stifled a little. That said, there are enjoyable set pieces. Christian Slater makes for a likeable hero and Travolta enjoys himself no end as the villain, giving himself a perfect warm up for John Woo’s next film which saw Travolta also return.

SEE ALSO: Revisiting John Woo’s Broken Arrow


A ludicrous sci-fi concept with even more ludicrous delivery could have fallen apart very quickly. Where Face/Off succeeded in becoming a cult favourite, was with the perfect combination of Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and John Woo. Forget the science and huge lapses in logic and stay for the over the top action, Woo caricaturing himself endlessly and Cage and Travolta brilliantly role swapping a third into the film.

Cage doing Travolta and Vice Versa is great fun to watch. Travolta in particular revels in being Cage. If you take Face/Off for what it is and don’t take it too seriously, it’s one of the best Hollywood action films of the 90’s. That it’s still attracting buzz for a potential sequel, says a lot.

SEE ALSO: The Problems Facing the Face/Off Sequel


Okay, so this is probably one of Woo’s worst films of last century. This TV movie-cum-failed pilot sees Dolph Lundgren as a bodyguard who whilst protecting the child of a client, finds himself stunned with a flash grenade and temporarily blinded. His vision returns but with a side effect; a phobia of the colour white. The cure? Just wear sunglasses.

It’s ridiculous, but at least there’s an attempt to delve into deeper child hood trauma to recognise just why Devlin (Lundgren) has developed this irrational problem. He can’t look at a white card and he even finds himself in a dairy factory as milk erupts from containers and he must fight his arch nemesis whilst blinded (because you know, milk is white…). It’s kind of equal parts brilliantly bad, but also compelling because it’s John Woo.

Prior to the days of the internet I’d walk in a video shop and often discover new releases. I’d long been a Dolph fan and by ’98 was well versed in Woo. He was the director to watch, so happening on a Lundgren/Woo collaboration was like Christmas coming early. I then spent countless weeks asking when the VHS was going to go on sale as ex-rental. Enjoy the daft plot, some imaginative action (of course), odd characters and the overwrought but entertaining villain, played by Phillip Mackenzie.

Mission: Impossible 2

In many ways it’s probably the weakest Mission: Impossible. The whole wafer thin McGuffin that propels the plot is no better/worse than every film in the franchise, but the plot barely holds together in what seems more like a Tom Cruise ego project. Still, Woo is dialled up to 11 here, with Hans Zimmer cranking himself up to 11 too. Dougray Scott comes in as villain and likewise, dials it right up. Anthony Hopkins has his famous $5 million cameo, dialling it up to, yes, you know.

Mission: Impossible 2 is brilliant.  The action is crazy but dazzling and this was the film which really kicked off the Tom Cruise stunt show. He does crazy things here, like never before. The mountain climb sequence is still utterly gratuitous but impressive.


In the wake of Saving Private Ryan there were a slew of war films. Often not very good. Windtalkers was one such. Maudlin and melodramatic, Woo’s sensibilities seems to jar with the setting. However, reappraisal is a wonderful thing. The internet age happened and Nic Cage was has becoming almost ironically reevaluated as a meme culture icon. As such, many of his more heavy handed performances, delving into scenery chewing fantasy, have been shown more love in recent times. Windtalkers would be one. If you let Cage set the tone, then Woo’s over the top (accidental) self-effacing style seems more suited now. It’s kind of great now, in spite of not being very good.

Red Cliff

The Woo returned to China after a disappointing run of films (most notably, Paycheck). Red Cliff was at the time, the most expensive Chinese production ever made. Woo returned to his historical routes, grounding his film in history which portrays a battle of three Kingdoms between 220-280AD. In China the film came in two parts, pushing five hours combined. On the other hand, the US theatrical version was essentially trimmed of a whole movie length’s worth of material.

In truth, the more succinct US/International version is as effective as the gargantuan and more episodic nature of the original two parter. It’s stunningly shot and enthralling with impressive battle scenes and a stellar cast headed by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung two Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai) alumni. For Western audiences though, this didn’t have the allure of Wuxia and mythology that made Crouching Tiger, Hero and House of Flying Daggers so alluring at the time.

What’s your favourite Woo film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…

Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here. 


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