When John Woo's films Hard Boiled, The Killer and Bullet in the Head reached the West, Woo was hailed for his gravity-less action coupled with a genuine tenderness rare in such shoot-'em-ups. More a phenomenon than a director, this Hong Kong iconoclast introduced an astounding new cinematic style to international film audiences.
The self-taught filmmaker combined John Ford's romanticism (especially the romance of male friendship), Peckinpah's machismo and the giddy spectacle of Tsui Hark and other Hong Kong-style acrobats. Woo brought something fresh and exciting to American audiences while also recharging a genre that often had slid into cancerous nihilism in the hands of brutal action heroes like Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Since his tenure in Hollywood, that signature style has been continually watered down and the vitality that once marked Woo's films is now a mere trace element. In Hard Target, the kinetic licks were still there, but they were less and less evident or at least drowned out by big stars and a familiar blockbuster mentality in Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II.
Woo adapts his signature style to Hollywood once again in the unsatisfying war film Windtalkers starring Woo's Broken Arrow alums Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater. Cage is WWII Marine Joe Enders, battle-scarred and debilitated with a hearing injury, who returns to the war with a new, tougher assignment in the Pacific. As part of the United States' effort to devise a code indecipherable by the Japanese, Native Americans are recruited to transmit messages in Navaho. Joe is assigned to protect his codetalker, Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), at any cost. Christian Slater is Ox Henderson, another Marine who has his own Navaho soldier to protect, Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie).
In town, with stars Slater and Willie to promote Windtalkers, John Woo indicates that a sense of responsibility toward the subject matter was more important than style in a film that deals with the significant real-life contributions of Native Americans during World War II in creating an unbreakable code.
"I changed my style a little bit," Woo admits, speaking in fractured English.
"Unlike what I done before, my movies usually they're pretty stylish. But in this film I tried to be honest and tell a story honestly. It was based on a true event, so I took it very seriously. Instead of action, I was much more focused on drama and especially the relationship between the Marine and the codetalkers, how they try to find a way to work together and come together."
That sense of camaraderie carried over onto the film set, forged in a boot camp the actors were required to endure before shooting began, "to get a sense and feel of what it was like to be a Marine," says Slater, looking more Rodeo Drive than jarhead with his shirt unbuttoned to his sternum and a mineral water at his side.
Asked where that interest in an almost romantic male friendship comes from, the director cites his own personal history growing up miserably poor in the slums of Hong Kong.
"I want to say it's a cultural thing. In our country, in China, we have so much concern about honor and loyalty, we are willing to die for a friend. When I was young, I was raised in a slum, like a living hell. But I got so much support from the church and from friends, and then when I grow up, I have a lot of friends who were helping me in my career. When I was down, I always got help from a friend. So in my theory, my kind of hero is whoever is willing to reach out a helping hand."
Though Woo's continued invocation of friendship and harmony can sound sugarcoated coming from an action film player, it's clear that perpetual optimism and earnestness are not put-on but are elements of his unique vision and an unspoiled personality that persists even within the Hollywood system.
"Nowadays there are so many misunderstandings around the world, people have so many hatreds," he notes. "So I always try to make a movie to let people know we should all try to work together."
It is also apparent that there is something deeper to the obvious joy Woo finds in filmmaking and the intense bonds fostered on the film set. More important to Woo than being applauded for his maverick style, is the pleasure in collaboration with his crew and actors, the thrill of making movies and paying tribute to a lost chapter in American history. But hopefully, Woo's admirable effort to be the nice guy and adapt to Hollywood won't mean that he has forever given up the vision and vitality that marked his introduction to the film world.