How John Woo Makes His Intense Action Scenes: A Video Essay

The world does not lack action movies, but well-made ones have for most of cin­e­ma his­to­ry been few and far between. Despite long under­stand­ing that action sells, Hol­ly­wood sel­dom man­ages to get the most out of the gen­re’s mas­ter crafts­men. Hence the excite­ment in the ear­ly 1990s when fans of Hong Kong gang­ster pic­tures learned that John Woo, that coun­try’s pre­em­i­nent action auteur, was com­ing state­side. His streak of Hong Kong hits at that point includ­ed A Bet­ter Tomor­rowThe KillerBul­let in the Head, and Hard Boiled, most of which starred no less an action icon than Chow Yun-fat. For Woo’s Amer­i­can debut Hard Tar­get, star­ring a Bel­gian mus­cle­man called Jean-Claude Van Damme, it would prove a hard act to fol­low.

Hard Tar­get, Evan Puschak (bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer) dri­ly puts it in the video essay above, is “not quite a mas­ter­piece.” Woo “bat­tled a mediocre script, stu­dio pres­sure, and a star who could­n’t real­ly act,” and then “the stu­dio re-edit­ed a lot of the movie to get an R rat­ing, and to make it more palat­able for Amer­i­can movie­go­ers, dilut­ing Woo’s sig­na­ture style in the process.”

But despite being a weak spot in Woo’s fil­mog­ra­phy, it makes for an illu­mi­nat­ing case study in his cin­e­mat­ic style. Puschak calls its action scenes “absurd­ly cre­ative” in a way that has “grown more impres­sive over time”: in them Woo employs slow motion — a sig­na­ture tech­nique “he weaves it into his high­ly kinet­ic sequences like an expert com­pos­er” — and oth­er forms of time dila­tion to “height­en the expe­ri­ence of impact.”

Like most action movies, Hard Tar­get offers a great many impacts: punch­es, kicks, improb­a­ble leaps, gun­shots, and explo­sions aplen­ty. Under Woo’s direc­tion they feel even more plen­ti­ful than they are, giv­en that he “often repeats things two or three times so that the impact has an echo­ing effect.” Yet unlike in run-of-the mill exam­ples of the genre, we feel each and every one of those impacts, owing to such rel­a­tive­ly sub­tle edit­ing strate­gies as pre­sent­ing the fir­ing of a gun and the bul­let hit­ting its tar­get as “two dis­tinct moments.” (Sev­er­al such gun­shots, as Puschak shows us using delet­ed footage, were among the stu­dio-man­gled sequences.) “This is unlike any tra­di­tion­al films in the States,” Woo lat­er said of Hard Tar­get’s dis­ap­point­ing per­for­mance, “so the audi­ence didn’t under­stand what’s going on with these tech­niques.” More than a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry lat­er, West­ern audi­ences have more of a grasp of Woo’s cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage, but few oth­er film­mak­ers have come close to mas­ter­ing it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch The Hire: 8 Short Films Shot for BMW by John Woo, Ang Lee & Oth­er Pop­u­lar Film­mak­ers (2002)

The Dark Knight: Anato­my of a Flawed Action Scene

Why Is Jack­ie Chan the King of Action Com­e­dy? A Video Essay Mas­ter­ful­ly Makes the Case

How Ser­gio Leone Made Music an Actor in His Spaghet­ti West­erns, Cre­at­ing a Per­fect Har­mo­ny of Sound & Image

How One Sim­ple Cut Reveals the Cin­e­mat­ic Genius of Yasu­jirō Ozu

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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