When comparing the action films of Hong Kong to the typical action films of America, certain differences are clearly visible. The films from Hong Kong feature more melodrama, more fast-paced action scenes, and most noticeably, more graphic violence, than the action films released in the US. When looking at what these Hong Kong films were influenced by, especially the films of John Woo, it is surprising to see that many of these differences from American cinema are, in fact, inspired by American cinema. In John Woo's most critically acclaimed and popular films in both Asia and the US, he has drawn aspects from other works of fiction across the globe. He then takes these aspects and adds his own touches to them to make them something distinctly Hong Kong.
John Woo first made his mark as a director on Hong Kong audiences in 1986, with the epic crime-drama A Better Tomorrow. The film tells the story of two brothers, one an ex-con, the other an undercover cop, and how they eventually team-up to fight a common enemy. The film is foremost a drama about the love of family (both of blood and crime), but there are two scenes involving gunplay that helped redefine not only John Woo's career, but also the action genre itself in Hong Kong. It is interesting though, that both of these scenes draw heavily from scenes found in other films from other countries (Logan 124).
The first scene occurs early on in the film as mob enforcer Mark Gor (played by Chow Yun-Fat) kills a gang of criminals for revenge of a comrade's death. What made this scene so original and groundbreaking when compared to other action films in Hong Kong at the time was the way John Woo directed this gunfight, and the fact that it was a gunfight at all.
Traditionally, Hong Kong moviegoers enjoyed films full of Kung Fu combat, like the Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung films the area is known for, not the American-style gunfight. Usually, the films showing the grace of the martial arts over the sudden brutality of a bloody gunfight performed much better there (Logan 115.) Woo addressed this conflict rather simply, by making the gunfights look like Kung Fu fights.
Drawing from Japanese samurai films, Woo stylized the fight scene dramatically. With the entire scene put in slow motion, each impact of bullet hitting flesh is shown in excruciating detail. This obviously prolongs the scene from the few seconds it would be in real-time to almost a full minute. Further making the scene different was the fact that Yun-Fat's character is using two guns, not one. This was drawn from traditional samurai texts about a type of samurai that used two swords to kill instead of the one. Fans of the genre have noticed this, and have named the two-gun style akimbo, after the class of samurai (Logan 124). While this may seem like a small inclusion, it allowed for much more action, leading into the sense of 'overkill' throughout the scene. People are not shot one or two times, they are shot up to half-a-dozen times before they are killed. Also, Yun-Fat can shoot off multiple rounds at once, adding even more impact to each shot. This is much like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee delivering a high-energy roundhouse kick to their opponent instead of a simple punch to the face. Both have the same result (a knocked-out opponent) but one is much more entertaining for the audience.
The second major action scene in the film also draws from existing films, but not from Asia. Instead, the works of Sam Peckinpah, especially The Wild Bunch (1969) and its (in)famous blood-soaked finale, heavily influenced Woo. Both scenes are similar in many ways. Most striking is that the set-up to both scenes are nearly identical, with the main characters of both walking into situations outnumbered, outgunned, and being driven by honor alone. Of course, both also involve a very-high, very-gory body count.
There is even one sequence of shots during this blood-drenched finale of A Better Tomorrow that is almost exactly the same as a sequence in The Wild Bunch. In The Wild Bunch, Lyle (Warren Oates) shoots his way to a gattling gun during the fight. Once he starts shooting there is a repeating sequence of camera shots; Lyle's face, the gun, and the people he is shooting. The same sequence of shots is seen at the end of A Better Tomorrow. Chow Yun-Fat's character, Mark Gor, is cornered during a fight at a shipyard. In desperation, shoots his way to a machine gun and runs down the yard, yelling and shooting the gun. Like The Wild Bunch, the cuts are constant between him, the gun, and his victims. These sequences of shots are not just similar, they are nearly identical (see comparison here). And it is not just the shots, but also the context behind them and the character's motivations, that are nearly identical.
A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987), Woo's next film, not only continued to show Peckinpah's influence, but also other directors, such as Coppola and Scorsese. It's overall theme of honor, redemption, and eventual downfall, present in the Godfather films, is present here. The crime family, strong in the first film, is dying here. More obvious, though, are the many Scorsese references throughout the film, especially Taxi Driver (1976) (Stokes and Hoover 50). In one scene, Chow Yun-Fat, with a comical De Niro-like New York accent, attacks a mobster who tries to force protection money from him. At one point, with a direct and obvious reference to Taxi Driver, Yun-Fat even looks him in the eye and says, "You Talkin' To Me?"
The ending of the film, while filmed differently than the end of The Wild Bunch has more in common with it than A Better Tomorrow. In the end of both films, the lead characters are walking into a situation that they know they will not get out of alive, they are only doing it to seek revenge for a fallen comrade. Not all of them liked him, one of them hardly knew him, but they have to do it for honor. And, like The Wild Bunch, and unlike the first A Better Tomorrow all of them die in the progress.
While Woo was very well known in Hong Kong for these two films, it was not until The Killer (1989), that he became known internationally. In America, critics hailed the film as original and different that any film seen before. While it is true that The Killer was different that most films being made at the time, much of it was drawn from existing fiction from all over the world. Unlike A Better Tomorrow 1 and 2, The Killer drew from many different sources, not just American and Japanese films.
While the influences from The Wild Bunch were still present they were not as explicit, with the two films sharing a common theme instead of common scenes (Stokes 40). In The Wild Bunch a bank robber and a bounty hunter share a common bond, much like the two main characters in The Killer. Jeffery, the killer, feels a connection to Inspector Li, and the two characters are common in many ways. Both are men of character. Jeffery may be a killer, but he only kills criminals. Li, on the other hand, is concerned only with capturing criminals and not with promotions, unlike all the other police officers in the film (Stokes and Hoover 55).
Scorcesse's film, Mean Streets (1973) also appeared to be used for inspiration (Dannen and Long 177). It's idea of redemption on the streets and redemption in the church, and which is better, is constantly touched on here. In The Killer, John wants redemption for his past sins, but does not look for it in Church, instead he tries to revert his past wrongs by fighting.
Perhaps the film that was drawn upon the most while making The Killer was the French film Le Samourai (1967), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The plot of Le Samourai is shared with The Killer, as both deal with double-crosses in the crime world, but there are more similarities. In Le Samourai the ways of the hitman are tied to the ways of the samurai, a theme that is touched upon in The Killer frequently (Stokes and Hoover 40). Some even credit The Killer as an unofficial remake of Le Samourai.
This is just the beginning of what Woo has admitted to using while making The Killer. Others include Leone's westerns, Kurosawa's epics, gangster films of the 1930s, and Chinese historical-period action films (Stokes and Hoover 40). And these are only the films. Woo also drew from foreign customs and religions also. He referenced ancient Chinese ideals such as chivalry and friendship with the relationship of John and Li in The Killer, honor above all, even death. Their relationship also draws on ideals from most major religions in Asia, including Confucian beliefs of mutual dependence and Christian values of compassion (Stokes and Hoover 40). Li and Jeffrey may not like each other, but they care and depend on the other one to survive.
At the same time Woo was drawing from more and more works of fiction across the globe, he was also beginning to add his own distinct style to his films. The gunfights became more stylish, they became something of his own, something beyond what he was being influenced by. He began using slow-motion to almost a ludicrous extent. In Hard Boiled (1992) (his last Hong Kong picture) both the beginning and final shoot-outs (one of which is nearly 30 minutes long) seems to use slow-motion in every other shot, with the impact of every bullet shown in excruciating, painful detail.
When Woo made the move to Hong Kong to America, this trend of drawing from more kinds of film, ideals, and literature continued. This is mainly because he could not make the ultra-violent, Peckinpah-inspired gunfight fueled films he was known for without receiving an NC-17 rating (Logan 136). To compensate for the toned-done action scenes, Woo stylized them even more. In his first American film, Hard Target (1993), he made Jean-Claude Van Damme handle the guns like they were swords, incorporating Van Damme's martial arts skills to create unique ways to reload and fire the guns. This made the film seem more like a martial-arts film than a traditional John Woo film. It may not have the blood-fueled flair that his older films have, but it does keep the energy of them, for the most part (Logan 138).
The first film Woo made in America that many consider being similar to his Hong Kong films was Face/Off, (1997.) Woo returned to the stylized, highly choreographed type of gunfight, toning down the blood just enough for an R rating. Woo even used his love of musicals for some scenes, with the character diving and jumping so much that some scenes resemble dance numbers more than gunfights. This was done in his Hong Kong films, but it is done to an even greater extent here. Many sets even resemble sets of musicals, mirrors and other musical staples are placed randomly about, waiting to be used in the big fight, much like sets were used in musicals such as Singing In The Rain (1952.) The references to musicals becomes blatant during one especially stylized gunfight, the song "Somewhere OverThe Rainbow" is being played.
Once Woo made his move to American films the action genre in Hong Kong lost its popularity. It could be said that without the country's originator of action cinema, it had nothing left to offer the international audience. Ironically enough, this was the time these films' influence on North American filmmakers were beginning to be seen (Teo viii). Robert Rodriguez borrowed heavily from The Killer for his first studio film, Desperado (1995), with the gunfights being very similar, almost to the point where some accused him of theft (Stokes and Hoover 35). Andy and Larry Wachowski also drew from many John Woo films (along with everything else Asian cinema is known, from the high-action of Japanese Animation to the "wire-fu" of Jet Li movies), for their film The Matrix (1999). The massive gunfight in the lobby is very reminiscent of the final gunfight in A Better Tomorrow 2. The main characters dress much like Chow Yun-Fat did in Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow 2. The direction of this fight is obviously inspired by John Woo's film, with an incredible reliance on slow-motion shots. The lobby scene also resembles the endings in The Wild Bunch and A Better Tomorrow 2 plotwise, with the two main characters walking into a gunfight they seemingly can not win to rescue one of their own. However, unlike the previous films, and a sign that the film was strictly a Hollywood production, they win (see a comparison of these scenes here).
The one filmmaker that was obviously influenced by John Woo and other Asian more than anyone else is Quentin Tarantino, almost to the point where is has been accused of blatantly ripping them off without credit. This has been very evident in all of his films, since his first film, Reservoir Dogs (1992). All of the main characters are dressed in simple black suits, identical to the main characters in the Better Tomorrow films. Other Better Tomorrow references are seen throughout the film. Early in the film there is a sequence of slow motion shots showing the robbers leaving the restaurant on the way to the robbery. Not only is this same sequence of shots in the end of A Better Tomorrow 2, but it is also in the end of The Wild Bunch, one of many examples of American films influencing Hong Kong films that went on to influence American films.
Harvey Keitel's character in the film, Mr. White, has many similarities to Chow Yun-Fat's character in A Better Tomorrow. He dresses likes him, talks like him, and both have the same honor-driven personalities. They both even share common mannerisms, such as constantly gnawing on toothpicks or matches for apparent reason, and using two guns for no practical reason (other than Quentin Tarantino thinking it looks cool.)
These films also draw upon original themes found in John Woo's action films. His occupation of private loyalty between characters, such as Jeffrey and Li in The Killer is touched upon in Reservoir Dogs. Mr. White is very loyal to Mr. Orange to the end of the film because he was shot helping him escape.
Perhaps the most famous "homage" Tarantino made to Hong Kong films in Reservoir Dogs is the final "Mexican standoff" scene (where all of the criminals have guns pointed at someone else, as well as themselves.) Many consider this to be a direct lift from the prototypal Hong Kong crime-drama, Ringo Lam's City On Fire (1987). The two films also share nearly identical plots.
In the past 30 years, the influence of action films has gone full circle, from America to Hong Kong and back to America again. Each film that borrows themes and draws upon films before it adds its own touch to them. With John Woo's films this was done so much that by the early 1990s, the films he was making bared little resemblance to the films that he was drawing upon. Now the same phenomenon is happening in America. The Wachowski brothers appropriated Woo's stylized shoot-out and added martial arts to it to make something entirely new for The Matrix. And even Tarantino had something new to give the genre, with his inclusion of quickly-delivered pop-culture referencing pastiche dialogue, something that is continually used today. This combination of appropriation and originality ensures the action and crime genres will constantly be able to reinvent itself, on both sides of the Pacific.
Logan, Bey. Hong Kong Action Cinema. Woodstock: Overlook, 1995.
Rodham Stokes, Lisa and Michael Hoover. City On Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. London: Verso, 1999.
Dannen, Fredric, and Barry Long. Hong Kong Babylon. New York: Hyperion, 1997.
Teo, Stephen. Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. Suffolk: BFI, 1997.