By: Cam Sully
Woo has become a cult icon and rather respected filmmaker once upon a time in the action community from popularizing all the slow-motion non-reloading induced shoot-outs to noirish jazz and anti-hero/gangster characters filling most of his films. From Hong Kong to Hollywood and then back to Hong Kong again, he is often missed from the movie scene these days so we can only look back at the good times. I’ve always found Face/Off to be absolutely stupid so sadly I can’t put that “brilliant movie” on here despite both crazy actors trying to outdo each other throughout. A Better Tomorrow films often just made me want to go back and rewatch The Godfather instead. Just Heroes, The Crossing, Manhunt, Paycheck, Windtalkers, Once a Thief, Mission: Impossible II and Red Cliff ranged between decent to mediocre so I skipped on even remotely considering those. The context to any action film has got to be fun so I found the most fun-inducing ones I could argue on!
10. Hand of Death/Countdown in Kung Fu
If you ever find this at your bargain-bin movie shops or even on El Rey cable network, make some time for this as it won’t be a waste. Another early Golden Harvest production ( was just waiting for a Shaw Brothers logo!), it’s still a must-see for Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao completists despite Chan having not-so-fond memories of beinctzrr Ter there but at least it never feels dull and goes from one exciting segment to the next so while the themes from Woo’s later signature work are missing, it’s still intriguing seeing how he established his exciting modus operandi for later on.
9. Reign of Assassins
Another one of many co-directed recent efforts, this one has spectacular choreography and is also one of Michelle Yeoh’s best non-American productions in recent years. The philosophy, sword fights and wirework are all well-realized while the fantasy elements aren’t poorly interjected either. Definitely a far better Wushu production than overall given credit for nowadays back when every other film throughout the ’00s and ’10s had to feel like it had to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Swordsmen film series.
8. The Replacement Killers
Woo as co-producer also saw it fit to oversee how the fights and shoot-outs would be portrayed on-screen. This film is often viewed as being more of the same seen-it-before Hong Kong goodness that had already graced us, American’s introduction to Chou Yun-Fat or an overall disappointment but I’ll have to be one of several who disagree with that. The action is well-realized and does show that if something isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing and translates far better to American screens than other Hong Kong crossover projects. John Lee is just as cool a persona as Fat has portrayed and hardly feels like any lesser Jackie Chan or Jet Li production in the U.S. ever became. The soundtrack is very engaging and the underseen extended director’s cut does actually add extra layers that were originally missing and which could easily make one appreciate this film more. As a whole, this film was easily the John Wick of its day but to be fair, it had other competition from other ’98 released blockbusters and too many options to choose from in the theatrical and home video circuits.
7. Heroes Shed No Tears
An earlier action-war picture from Woo that utilizes his usual tragic melodrama mixed with the beloved gory shoot-outs and wastes no time in doing either. The gunplay and staging are nice if not always memorable but the plot, which concerns Thai mercs taking on military regimes in the Golden Triangle, does have some often lesser-talked-about themes from Woo regarding terrible choices having to be made during wartime and for that alone you should definitely seek it out.
A USA Network original movie that was to serve as a TV series pilot, this film nonetheless hardly feels incomplete or like it’s too restricted to it’s TV format. It stars Dolph Lundgren in a change-of-pace role as a blind private eye assigned to keep an eye on some witness and her kid. It never becomes annoying (not even the kid for a change!) and Fred Williamson even lends some acting support albeit briefly. Dolph had previously done the similar Neo-Noirish, Hong Kong styled Joshua Tree/Army of One but here he’s equally acceptable and lands some surprisingly dry wit and his usual welcome physicality to an otherwise uncanny film. Woo was busy doing this shortly after his rather underrated Once a Thief TV show- also for USA Network- and it would’ve had hurt to have had maybe a sequel or greenlight to go ahead with the series when you look back at it now.
5. The Killer
Too predictable by today’s standards, it still is yet another engaging assassin and cop facing off while caught between personal love escapades, thrill of the kill and unlikely allys themes. The finale says it all as it is a much-described explosive orgasm of violence worth seeing on a big-screen (if not your personal home theater system to test out). See it, see it, see it dammit!
4. Broken Arrow
Rather lame at first and not really stretching itself script-wise as scripter Graham Yost basically repeats his same formula as ’94s Speed only having the career criminal be a former Army pilot causing destruction for personal monetary gain instead of former policeman but alas once it stops being cute after the first 10 minutes, it never lets up and becomes a beyond delightful time. John Travolta is still at one of his best villain roles to date and steals every line he unleashes on-screen (if it’s not a bullet or bomb he’s letting loose that is!) and while all the other castmates aren’t given as much to do, the copter raids, other desert chases, destruction and train finale are all well displayed. It also helps that each action sequence decides to outdo the last one and does so rather successfully.
To date, it’s still easily Woo’s most agreeable action film as unlike with Mission: Impossible watered-down producer edits, Paycheck’s derivative plot and Windtalker’s incessant screaming lines, this one doesn’t get repetitive and outstay its welcome.
3. Bullet in the Head
Building once again on his brothers in arms gimmick from his earlier Chou Yun-Fat gangster melodramas, Woo hits gold by showcasing more personal reflections on greed, betrayals and double-crossing before once again settling for more high-stakes and bloodshed finales. Tony Leung is once again utilized by him and truly grows as a performer here. This film is easily tied with Treasure of the Sierra Madre for its tale of power and greed, if not best Vietnam war drama!
2. Hard Target
Whether you’re watching the cut-down release or the bootleg uncut version, this cult film keeps getting better with age that had it been a bigger hit, Woo would have the power in Hollywood that Tarantino has now. All the heroes and villains have great lines and you just don’t get quirky casts like this anymore! There’s plenty of other movie references that take multiple viewings to notice, let alone appreciate and the film makes a wonderful double feature with the likes of similar “hunt or be hunted” thrill rides like The Running Man and Surviving the Game!
Every kind of action scene you can think of is basically on display here form copter shoot-outs to horseback chases to cycle and car chases. And then when that’s not enough, you got every other kind of martial art kick and type of gunplay to pick from. Everyone has their favorite scene but we’ll be damned if anyone has an exact favorite as there’s so much to pick from! It’s easy to see why Sam Raimi decided to produce it as both he and Woo’s dark sense of humor comes across on-screen here (and you’ll know when you see it, especially in the snake scene) and, to date, it’s still a great time at the movies.
1. Hard Boiled
A universally agreed upon film that was Woo’s response to Die Hard, a favorite of his (and many true action fans), this film honestly can’t be beat! Maybe it’s something to do with him having “Hard” be in the title of some of his films but realistically it’s just because the plot is well-calculated and the over-the-top nature of this film is merited given the various circumstances. It all keeps building up to more welcome bloodshed without feeling overlong or piss-poor. Tony Leung’s undercover cop role definitely got him similar roles years later including the much-beloved Infernal Affairs trilogy (AKA the three films that got remade as The Departed) and Chou Yun-Fat got more beloved international attention as the memorable streetwise Inspector Tequila. For you college students out there: the next time your professor shouts that Action movies suck, pull up YouTube on your class computer or connected projector and show them the no-cutaway filled hospital shoot-out. That’ll put them in their place!