The Poetic Violence of John Woo: How the Director Makes Action So Intense
Cue the doves, we're talking Woo!
Tell me if this has happened to you—you're running through the tunnels of a secret underground lair and realize one of your arch-nemesis' henchmen is after you. You know the only way to get past him is to switch faces, but you're worried that his missing finger might give you away?
Yes, we've all been there, during Mission: Impossible 2, while trying to save Thandie Newton.
But these are average things that happen in a John Woo movie. That, and a whole bunch of doves flying around to let us know some severe shit is about to go down.
John Woo has a way with action. He makes things exciting and thrilling. His techniques here are almost unparalleled. And a lot of the ideas and angles he uses are emulated by filmmakers all over the world today.
Let's take a look at how John Woo makes his action intense, and see what we can glean from his mastery.
Let's get this out of the way before we dig in, John Woo is known for fight scenes and the use of doves. Why doves (sometimes they are pigeons!)? And why doves in slow motion? This juxtaposition is a deliberate use of symbolism. He wants to highlight both the purity of the characters’ souls as well as the traditional Christian spiritual connection of messengers between people and God.
These doves happen in many of his films.
Long Takes, Quick Editing
Aside from the doves, what makes his action so good?
From John Wick to Kill Bill to The Matrix, many of our favorite movies owe their action stylings to John Woo.
Woo brings a blend of well-composed long takers that make you feel like the fighting is real, as well as rapidly cut footage that intensifies action. Being able to do both keeps his films interesting from frame to frame.
The best use of this stuff happens in his Hong Kong action films.
Check out this clip from the Teahouse shootout in Hard Boiled.
Another one of his trademarks is slow motion. Slow-motion seems cheesy, but Woo uses it for characters to come to realizations. Like maybe they went too far, or maybe they're in over their heads.
These are echoes of slow-motion used in Kurosawa films and even Bonnie and Clyde. But this time they are in high octane action. And it makes us pause for a moment to appreciate the circumstances.
Woo seamlessly blends this slow-motion into the fast-paced action scenes. It's very artistic and can highlight stars too. Like it does in Mission: Impossible 2.
The Power of Weaponry
The last thing I want to talk about is how John Woo shoots gunplay.
Action movies live and die by the gunshots. Some directors use so many that they are deadened and have no impact. But Woo understands the power of weaponry. His technique is to echo power. That means editing back and forth from shot to impact.
He also has no problem suspending reality here, too, so that every gunshot feels like a canon and packs a huge explosion. Gunshots allow Woo to get creative with the editing and slow things down.
One of the most epic scenes ever is the end to Hard Boiled where he sets his action in a hospital. And the gunshots shake the night.
So what can you learn from Woo?
Get creative with your angles, editing, and long takes. Challenge the audience into participating in the display and don't be so worried about reality—just worry about being entertaining.
I can't wait to see what you come up with.
Let us know your favorite Woo scenes in the comments!