John Woo’s Face Off

John Woo’s Face/Off was originally conceived as a Schwarzenegger/Stallone vehicle and was to exist in a far more futuristic setting. I’m glad that the eventual execution was more down to earth because I get cold sweat visions of the 90’s Judge Dredd flick with Arnie swapped in for Armand Assante. Jokes aside, the performances, production design finished product turned out to be pretty much as amazing as anything you’ll find in Hollywood throughout the years, and has become a classic for me.

John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are perfectly paired as grizzled FBI super-agent Sean Archer and eccentric, psychopathic rock star terrorist Caster Troy, two star crossed arch enemies who find themselves battling on a whole new plane when their faces literally get swapped by the bureau’s fanciest clandestine nip tuck procedure. This gives the film not a only a high concept boost but the opportunity for each actor to really break free from the bonds of playing just one character and overlap into the realms of their counterpart, not to mention parody the absolute fuck out of their respective acting styles, which we as moviegoers know is never short on eccentricity for the both of them. Others revolve around them, specifically two very different women in their lives who are caught up in the in the titanic clash of will, ego and guns upon guns. Joan Allen is angelic poetry as Eve, Archer’s wife, and Gina Gershon adds a feline sexiness in Sasha, Troy’s old concubine. They both share a wounded nature in different ways, both having been drawn into the conflict and taking charge of their trajectory in different, equally compelling ways. Nick Cassevetes and his bald dome steal scenes as Dietrich, Troy’s trigger happy lieutenant, Dominique Swain shows early what talent she has as Archer’s strong willed daughter and there’s a galaxy of supporting talent including Harve Presnell, Colm Feore, CCH Pounder, Matt Ross, Margaret Cho, Thomas Jane, John Carroll Lynch, Alessandro Nivola, Chris Bauer, Robert Wisdom, Kirk Baltz, Paul Hipp, Danny Masterson, David Warshofsky, Thomas Rosales and Scottish badass Tommy Flanagan, early on before Hollywood gave him lines and those leering Joker scars did the talking.

This is the Cage/Travolta show most of the way though and they positively rock the house as two dysfunctional would-be siblings who could probably sit down and have a few beers together if they weren’t so busy trying to kill each other. Woo outdoes himself in a production that includes all of his hallmarks: white doves breaking formation in languid slo-mo, dual wielded berettas barking out clip after clip, symphonies of smashing glass, looming pillars of fireball pyrotechnics and the always classy tradition of characters having firefights clad in snappy suits. There’s a plane chase, a boat chase (my favourite sequence of the film), a breathless aquatic prison break, a church shootout of biblical proportions, a thundering FBI raid on a dockside stronghold, a vicious beatdown of Hyde from That 70’s Show (art eerily imitates life here) and the most inventive use of a harpoon gun I’ve ever cringed at.

Obviously the content of my favourite films is fluid and changes over time but in terms of a top action film, this is likely the constant. It’s like the whole genre went to sleep, had a dream and this was the resulting output. I gotta mention the original score because it’s a doozy, but I’ve always been a bit confused who to thank for it. IMDb has John Powell credited, whose work I love on the Bourne films. But other research turns up evidence of stuff from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard as well, so I’m not sure who did what or if it was a collaboratively lateral thing, but in any case it’s fantastic work, particularly in the boat chase where the composition reaches that near celestial height where it has the power to raise the hairs on your arms. What else is there to say? “Gonna take his face…. off…!”

-Nate Hill

The Man who would be Cage: An Interview with Marco Kyris by Kent Hill


I feel like I’m somehow getting closer to Nicolas Cage. I’ve spoken to a man who has directed him – a man who has “Nic-polished” his scripts. So, you can image my delight when Marco Kyris, Cage’s stand-in from 1994 till 2005, agreed to not only have a chat, but also to give me a preview of his new documentary, UNCAGED : A Stand-in Story.

People ask me, “What’s with this Cage obsession?”

My answer is always…I think he’s a genuinely smart actor, with eclectic tastes and a wide repertoire which has seen him enjoy Oscar glory, big box office success and become a champion of independent film.

The son of August Coppola (nephew of Francis Ford), but with a name lifted from the pages of his comic book heroes, Cage is at once both an actor and a movie star. With a legion of devoted fans worldwide and, heck, even a festival that bears his name – celebrating the wild, the weird, and the wonderful of the cinema of Nicolas Cage. From the genius of Con Air to the brilliant subtlety of Adaptation, the exceptional character work of Army of One to the gravitas of Leaving Las Vegas – Cage is a ball of energy that needs only to be unleashed on set.

It was my sincere pleasure to talk with the man who stood in for the man when the man wasn’t on set. Marco’s tales are a fascinating glimpse – another angle if you will – in the examination of one of the movie industry’s true originals. I know you’ll find his story and his film, UNCAGED, compelling viewing  – for both those curious as to the life of a stand-in, and also those looking for a unique look at the life of a superstar.

I’ve been privileged to chat with the people who made the rough stuff look easy for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rene Russo…

Now it’s time to uncage the legend.





John Woo’s Broken Arrow

When Hong Kong action alchemist John Woo mixes up his gracefully brutal aesthetic with big budget Hollywood high gloss, the results are an irresistible flavour. While not quite the balls out, blitzkrieg masterpiece that Face/Off is, his military gong show Broken Arrow is still one walk on the wild side of stunts, explosions, overblown madness and maniacal behaviour from John Travolta, who seems to be amping up the histrionics in double time just to cover Nicolas Cage’s shift this time around. He’s a navy pilot psycho called Deakins here, an unstable traitor who hijacks a volatile nuclear warhead and holds congress hostage, giggling like a schoolgirl the whole time. It’s up to his trainee and former partner Hale (Christian Slater) to hunt him through Death Valley where they’ve crashed, causing as much pyrotechnic commotion as possible and prep for the inevitable one on one smackdown that’s neatly foreshadowed by an opening credits boxing sequence between the two that’s an appetizer for the adrenal glands in prep for the chaos to follow. The action is fast, fierce and extremely violent, as is the amped up macho banter between the two, but Travolta really takes the role and sails off the charts into the ‘here there be dragons’ realm of acting reserved for only the most memorably over the top performances in history. “You’re fucking insane”, Slater sneers at him; “Yeah! Ain’t it cool?” Travolta smirks back with a face that would be straight if not for the knowing glint in his eyes. Park ranger Samantha Mathis helps Slater in his quest to bring the lunatic down, and there’s an impressive laundry list of character actors rounding out the military faction including Howie Long, Delroy Lindo, Frank Whaley, Bob Gunton, Chris Mulkey, Daniel Von Bargen, Vondie Curtis Hall, Jack Thompson, French Stewart, Raymond Cruz and Kurtwood ‘Red Forman’ Smith. Hans Zimmer does the score here and it’s an undervalued composition in his canon, a chromed up tune that drips cool and hurtles alongside the action awesomely. Woo has had some dodgy luck in Hollywood since (Mission Impossible 2 and Paycheck are painful), but this is one of his best stabs at the Western style of action, brought to eccentric life by Travolta’s oddball psycho and full of crazy ass action spectacle.

-Nate Hill

John Woo’s Windtalkers

John Woo’s Windtalkers is a brutal, somber, joyless affair, a muddy and hopeless war picture that contains little of the ethereal poise of stuff like The Thin Red Line or heroic muscle such as Saving Private Ryan. As long as you can adjust and tune into it’s frequency it’s a well made, sorrowful look at the American effort against Japan, particularly a mission involving a regiment whose task is to protect Native Navajo code breakers that can detect messages fired off by the enemy. A mopey Nicolas Cage is their shell shocked leader, pressing his men onward into territory that no doubt contains the same horrors he witnessed before the film begins. We find him in a trauma ward initially, cared for by a kindly nurse (Frances O’Connor), until Jason Isaacs cameos as the recruitment officer who spurs him back into action. His troupe is composed solely of excellent, distinct acting talent and they help the film considerably. The Navajo are played by Adam Beach and Roger Willie, giving grace and nobility to two men who are out of their depth and terrified. Peter Stormare, Christian Slater, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt and a standout Martin Henderson are the rest of the troops, each getting their moment to shine within the unit’s cohesive arc. Woo is an odd choice for a war picture, and his stylized flair for bullet ridden action is nowhere to be found in these bleak, bloodied trenches, trading in suits and duel wielded glocks for faded camo and muted rifle fire. The action is neither cathartic nor poetic, simply a concussive cacophony of combat that offers little aesthetic pleasure, forcing you to find the value in empathy towards these men, and as long as you can do that, you’ll get something out of it. 

-Nate Hill


Author’s Note:  This is a guest post by Damian K. Lahey, an award-winning filmmaker, and screenwriter who we had as a guest on our podcast last year.

BulletInTheHeadPosterThis is a hysterically violent and poetic film about loyalty and the bonds of friendship. John Woo went for the brass ring with this one. Many believe he came up short but I believe this is his greatest achievement.

The chaos of war, the insanity, the opportunism and the complete betrayal of one’s moral instincts is splashed up on the screen in a bare naked emotionalism that is at times refreshing and startling. The stakes are high enough and the circumstances desperate enough that the fever pitch the actors maintain is tolerable if not entirely believable. Those familiar with his work know Woo is not afraid to get hammy with his melodrama. Here I found the dramatics at their most earned and poignant.

It could be argued that at times the maniacal violence underscores the level of artistic achievement Woo is going for here.

This film also makes the strong case that looking for a quick buck in war-torn countries is a bad idea.

Aside from being the director closest to mimicking Sam Peckinpah’s signature style (though he doesn’t collapse time the way Peckinpah did in his actions sequences) Woo can also be credited with giving Chinese action pictures an emotional gravitas they had not had before with his 1986 film, ‘A Better Tomorrow’ which was very influential both in Asian cinema and abroad. He would go on to whip out other action classics like ‘Hard Boiled’, ‘The Killer’ and ‘Face Off’. At the time, Woo felt ‘Bullet In The Head’ was the natural progression of his work. He spent a lot of his own money on this, too. Not until 2008 with ‘Red Cliff’ would he attempt something as epic if not as bold.

Originally some of the material for this film was going to be the basis for ‘A Better Tomorrow III’. But Woo and his partner Tsui Hark had a major falling out and Woo took his material and sculpted it into ‘Bullet In The Head’ while Hark rushed ahead with ‘A Better Tomorrow III’ to beat it at the Hong Kong box office.

Woo’s western influences for ‘Bullet In The Head’ were obviously Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Cimino’s ‘Deer Hunter’. I wouldn’t rank it as highly as those two films but Woo’s ambitions for this film are truly maddening. He puts his heart on the line like few do and the result is epic, daring and soaked in blood.




In retrospect, John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) can be seen as his audition reel for Hollywood. And what a helluva audition reel it was – a masterfully orchestrated magnum opus of mayhem. After its release, he moved to the United States and started over (directing a Jean Claude-Van Damme film no less – ouch!). Woo’s film took the gangster melodrama, that he started with A Better Tomorrow (1986), to the next level. In doing so, he created what is arguably the greatest action film ever made.

We are introduced to a city mired in crime and corruption – one that is at the mercy of the Triads, gun smuggling gangsters with very little regard for human life as evident from the bloody shoot-out in a teahouse that kicks off the film. We are also introduced to a police officer named Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat), a one-man army with two guns in his hands; able to gun down bad guys while sliding down a banister (which has since become one of the iconic images from the movie). However, when the gangsters kill his partner, Tequila makes it his life’s goal to take them all down, the law be damned. He eventually crosses paths with Tony (Tony Leung), an undercover cop working deep within the Triads as an efficient killer. So deep, in fact, that he’s beginning to lose his original identity. Once Tequila discovers Tony’s true identity, they team-up for a show-stopping finale that can only be described as a bullet-ridden blow-out of epic proportions.

Hard Boiled is structured around three major action set pieces: the teahouse shoot-out that introduces Tequila, a warehouse gun battle where the cop meets his undercover counterpart, and the hospital showdown where the two men team-up to take down the bad guys. Each sequence is more ambitious than the one that came before and this culminates in the hospital battle that includes an impressive three-minute action sequence without any edits – virtually unheard of in an action film, especially one with as much mayhem as this one.

Woo plays with action film conventions by imparting intentionally sappy, sentimental moments like Tequila rescuing a room full of babies from gangsters and then gives it a mischievous twist by having one baby pee on the fire that started on the cop’s leg after he outran an explosion with said child.

While Woo purists cite The Killer (1989) as his finest achievement, Hard Boiled tops it in terms of kinetic action and choreography. While the previous film may deal with weightier themes, the latter film has a stronger foil to interact with Chow Yun-Fat. The chemistry between him and Tony Leung is excellent. Their characters start off as antagonists but over the course of the film they become allies, developing the kind of deep, meaningful bond that a lot of characters in Woo films share with one another. Tequila’s girlfriend (Teresa Mo) almost seems like an afterthought. After all, how can she compete with what Tequila and Tony go through together over the course of the film?

hard2Hard Boiled was Woo’s last Hong Kong film and this caused some critics to speculate that the film reflected his conflict between staying in a country he loved but that was facing an uncertain future, and leaving it for a prosperous new beginning. This metaphor was said to be expressed symbolically in the besieged hospital at the film’s finale. It represented Woo’s state of mind at the time: does he stay in a place that will potentially kill him, or escape and live but at a cost. The cost was the many restrictions that the Hollywood studios imposed on his first two American films, Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996). It wasn’t until Face/Off (1997) that he was able to finally cut loose stylistically but it still felt like highlights from his Hong Kong output. This makes fans nostalgic for his older films and is why Hard Boiled has stood the test of time. It is still superior to any action film that has been made since.



After the smash box office success of A Better Tomorrow (1986) in its native country of Hong Kong and other Asian territories, the film’s producer Tsui Hark convinced its director John Woo to quickly crank out a sequel imaginatively titled A Better Tomorrow II (1987). The two men had a contentious relationship during production and this spilled over during the editing phase where they argued over the length of the film. It got so bad that a mediator had to step in, allowing Hark and Woo to each edit a half of the film. The end result is a flawed yet fascinating mess of a film that divided Woo fans but helped popularize what became known as the Heroic bloodshed movie, a genre of Hong Kong cinema distinctive for its overtly stylized action sequences often involving excessive gunplay and melodramatic themes consisting of brotherhood, honor, duty, and ultimately redemption.

A few years have passed since the events depicted in A Better Tomorrow. Sung Tse Ho (Ti Lung) is recruited from prison to infiltrate and bust an international counterfeiting operation in Hong Kong. His target is Lung Si (Dean Shek), his former mentor. He’s asked to go undercover and investigate Lung but Ho refuses out of loyalty and the belief that his friend has retired from the business. So, his younger brother Sung Tse Kit (Leslie Cheung), now a police lieutenant, takes the job instead. He manages to impress Lung by helping his daughter in a dance contest.

When Kit’s wife Jackie (Emily Chu) visits Ho in prison upset and worried about her husband’s “secret mission,” he reconsiders the deal offered him. Ho is quickly reunited with Lung and finds out his mentor really has gone straight despite crippling debts and pressure from rival mob boss Mr. Wong (Ng Man-tat) to buy Lung’s shipyard. However, at a meeting with Mr. Wong, Lung is framed for the crime boss’ murder and so Ho puts his mentor on a boat to New York City. However, Lung’s beautiful young daughter is killed on orders from crime boss Ko Ying Pui (Shan Kwan), which, coupled with seeing the kindly priest that took him in and a little girl get killed by assassins, drives him off the deep end. Just how much more trauma can this guy take?

Before he’s about to be given electroshock therapy at a mental institution, Lung is sprung by Ken “Gor” Lee (Chow Yun-fat), the twin brother of Mark who was killed in A Better Tomorrow. It takes approximately 20 minutes before we’re introduced to Ken in a ridiculously drawn out scene where he rants about a plate of rice that a customer doesn’t like. It is a shameless bit of overacting even by Hong Kong cinema standards and I suppose is intended to show that Ken is just as wild and unpredictable as his brother. However, the scene goes on and on into self-parody and one has to give Chow Yun-fat credit for fully committing – or something like that. The overacting continues as Ken tries to get Lung out of his catatonic state. Of course, just as Ken makes a breakthrough they are attacked by assassins. Only in a Woo film would a bloody shoot-out snap a character out of his catatonia. Having survived yet another attack, Ken and Lung go back home to Hong Kong, team up with Ho and Kit and exact unholy vengeance on Ko and his army of crooks in what proves to be one incredible action set piece after another.

In keeping with the tradition of Heroic bloodshed movies, A Better Tomorrow II is essentially a soap opera for guys, albeit a bullet-ridden one. It features incredibly heightened emotions (see the rice scene) as the main characters constantly make life or death decisions. Their lives are continually in danger, which creates an intense bond – the hallmark of many Woo films, especially his Hong Kong ones. Around the one-hour mark the slow motion mayhem really kicks into gear as the Chow Yun-fat action hero we all know and love manifests itself when a gang of bad guys tries to kill Ken and Lung at a flophouse they’re hiding out in. Among the beautifully orchestrated carnage we get a breathtaking shot of Ken sliding down a flight of stairs while dispatching an anonymous baddie with two guns – an iconic image that perhaps best encapsulates what the Heroic bloodshed genre is all about. This stunt was also a warm-up for a similar one that would be pulled off in Hard Boiled (1992), Woo’s Hong Kong swan song.

The rice rant aside, Chow Yun-fat demonstrates why he was such a super star in Hong Kong. He gives off an air of effortless cool as the unstoppable action hero and Woo’s cinematic alter ego. He has loads of charisma and the camera really picks up on it in a big way. Ti Lung is also quite good as the conflicted ex-con that risks his life by going undercover to protect his brother. Leslie Cheung plays the tragic cop with everything to lose. His character has a pregnant wife yet constantly risks his life in order to take down Ko. Finally, Dean Shek is excellent as the father figure of the group and shows considerable chops as Lung goes from honest businessman to catatonic victim to ruthless avenger.

After the financial success of A Better Tomorrow, the film’s producer Tsui Hark wanted to capitalize on it by quickly making a sequel. Originally, the film’s director John Woo agreed but only if it was a prequel set in Vietnam. To him, it didn’t make sense to make a sequel because Mark, A Better Tomorrow’s most popular character, was dead. Woo came up with a story that depicted how the main characters in the first film became friends and got to where they were in life. This was ultimately rejected and he later used it in one of his most personal films Bullet in the Head (1990).

One of Woo’s good friends, actor Dean Shek was going through a rough patch in his career. He was no long popular with audiences and had gone to the United States with the intention of retiring. So, Hark and Woo met with Shek in America and convinced him to come back and make another film with them. This inspired Hark to come up with an idea for a sequel with Shek’s character Lung being coaxed back into action by his friends. Hark also came up with the idea of Mark’s twin brother Ken living in New York City. Woo wasn’t thrilled with these ideas because it ended any notion of his prequel idea but he wanted to help out Shek.

Problems arose during production when Woo came up with the idea of shifting the focus of the film to the two younger brothers – Ken and Kit – because he felt that they had a lot in common. The director shot several scenes with them working and talking together. However, when the film’s original cut ran almost three hours, Hark felt that the film was too long and that the focus should be on Lung. He wanted all of these additional scenes removed. Woo refused to make these cuts and so Hark secretly made edits only for Woo to then put the footage back in afterwards. A mediator stepped in and gave Hark and Woo one week to each edit a half of the film. The end result is a version of the film that neither men were happy with, especially Woo who considers it his least favorite of anything he’s done (Really? Has he seen Paycheck?).

Like many Woo films, A Better Tomorrow II examines themes of honor and loyalty. Ho goes to great extremes in protecting his mentor and his brother Kit as well. These guys are willing to face insurmountable odds and die for each other all in the name of friendship. But it is more than just friendship. When you’ve come so close to death as these guys have there is an unbreakable bond that connects them in a way that clearly fascinates Woo as he has explored it so many times in his films.

Sure, he lays the angst and melodrama on thick but in doing so raises the stakes in the action sequences. This was a pretty novel notion at the time. It makes the climactic showdown – where Ken, Lung and Ho are decked out in black suits (anticipating Reservoir Dogs by a few years) – that much more memorable because these guys have sacrificed so much that they’re due for some well-deserved payback and man, do they ever dish it out by staging a full-on assault on Ko’s compound with automatic weapons, grenades and, in one memorable bit, a samurai sword. But it is Woo’s trademark dual handgun action that is used the most and to greatest effect. A Better Tomorrow II takes the first film and ups the ante with more bloodshed and more melodrama for an installment that some prefer over the original. For a film that had such a troubled production, it is surprisingly coherent and in terms of its action sequences a classic of the genre. Woo would improve greatly on this template with The Killer (1989) and the aforementioned Hard Boiled before trying his luck in Hollywood with mixed results.