Gentleman with a gun

John Woo, director of "Face/Off" and super-violent, ultra-stylish Hong Kong "blood operas," talks about the elegance of Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, his childhood dream of becoming a minister and why he loves his villains.

Published June 27, 1997 3:36PM (EDT)

fans of "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs" are familiar with John Woo's movies -- though they may not know it. Quentin Tarantino acknowledges a huge debt to Woo, whose super-violent, ultra-stylish Hong Kong action films inspired copycats both Asian and American. Often described as "blood operas," Woo's films are extravagant celebrations of blood and violence, with body counts climbing into the triple digits long before the inevitable climactic shootout. Yet at their core, Woo's films grapple with difficult moral dilemmas that sometimes remain unanswered even as the credits roll. Woo's trademark element is his leading men -- impeccably elegant, they reveal their humanity as they struggle to overcome their baser instincts. Before Tarantino imagined Vincent Vega, he saw Woo's stylish hit man, Jeffery Chow, played with stoic grace by Woo favorite Chow Yun-Fat.

Tarantino was able to pay off his debt, at least partially, when he introduced Woo to John Travolta. Woo went on to cast Travolta in his second American feature, "Broken Arrow" (his first, "Hard Target," was a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, and disappointed audiences as well as the director), and to win an American audience of his own. While "Broken Arrow" had some signature Woo moments -- fantastic explosions, loving attention to the details of guns and ammunition, an enviably composed villain -- it lacked the existential musings of his best work, 1989's "The Killer."

With "Face/Off," American audiences are finally getting the unexpurgated Woo. A story of two diametrically opposed characters -- one good, one evil -- who literally walk a mile in each other's shoes, "Face/Off" examines the dualities of human nature and nicely tweaks audiences' expectations of its two stars, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. In true Woo style, there's also a boat chase, plane crash, prison break and shootout in a Los Angeles loft.

Salon recently spoke with Woo about soulless action movies, John Travolta, the definition of a hero and how Jesus influences his films.

Why do you think audiences respond to your films?

I think people are fed up with seeing action movies without any soul. I think they want to see the real tears, the real emotions. Times have changed. In the old times, people liked superheroes, but now they like a real person, a hero who is like one of the neighbors, who can speak for them and stand for them, and is very human.

You seem to really empathize with your villains -- you make them seem very graceful and elegant -- almost likable, or enviable. Are those characters more interesting to you?

More interesting, and the other thing is my philosophy. I'm not a philosopher, but I've always felt there are no real good guys or bad guys; they all have special qualities. I think all mankind is equal, so I try to love my villains like I love my heroes. I make the villains charming and elegant to try to make people care about them a little bit.

Do you identify with them?

I don't identify with them, I feel sympathy for them. I am influenced by Jesus' philosophy, which says love your neighbor, love everybody. That's how I see it.

You thought of becoming a minister at one point?

When I was a kid growing up in Hong Kong, our family was so poor, and an American family sent money to the Lutheran church and supported me going to school for six years, and also my brother and sister. And I was grateful to the church because, without their help, I might have become a different person. I had great parents, but at that time I was so scared, and so lonely, and I had to fight so hard, because I had to deal with gangs almost every day. So you can see how rough it was -- I felt like I was living in hell, and the church became my shelter. I felt safe and happy and comfortable in the church. When I was 16, I really wanted to be a minister, to pay back the people who gave me help, and help other people.

In both "The Killer" and "Face/Off," you stage shootouts in churches with white doves flying around.

Yes, I started that idea with "The Killer," to try to say that people's hatred, and fighting against each other, turns heaven into hell. The church's peace and harmony symbolize understanding and redemption, and everyone, whether you're good or bad, can find salvation in the church. And I like doves because to me they represent the spirit, so whenever the hero is shot or hurt, I use doves to represent the hero's soul.

Do you think there are different cultural expectations of a hero in Asia and America?

Asian audiences like a sort of perfect hero -- they like a hero to be very traditional. Some American audiences like that traditional hero, who never cries, never dies, but I think that kind of hero is getting less popular, and they are starting to want someone more real. Audiences are responding to Nicolas Cage as the new hero, because he was so human, and so elegant as well, and was just like a real person. And John Travolta, he's a great cop, but he's a failure in his family, and that makes it more convincing. Audiences like that he's flawed.

Do you remember John Travolta from "Saturday Night Fever?"

Yeah, I watched those movies when I was young. I admire his performance -- since he was a dancer, he is very graceful in the action sequences. But I also like him as a person. He has a great heart, and he really cares about everyone. That's my hero. My hero has a big heart and really cares. After I saw John in "Pulp Fiction," I saw that he was a great actor, and I wanted to work with him. In "Face/Off" he really stands for me. In every movie I relate to one of the characters, and I think we have something in common. We both are a little old-fashioned, we both like the good old times. Nick Cage is the same. He's also an amazing actor.

I heard there are plans for an American remake of "The Killer."

I'll produce it, but I never like to repeat myself. I'll tell you a secret: I never watch one of my movies after I've finished it. I always look for a new challenge. It's so funny, my friends know my movies better than me -- they'll quote the lines, and I'll say, "Did I write that?" Sometimes when I watch the TV, I'll see a scene that looks really familiar, and then I'll realize it's from one of my movies. Maybe when I retire I'll watch them.

It's like climbing a mountain -- when you go to the top, if you look back you'll fall. And when you get to the top, you see a whole new world, and another mountain.

So what's the next mountain?

A light comedy ... the humor worked so well in "Face/Off," I was encouraged to make a comedy. Not a crazy comedy, but a charming, elegant heist story -- basically a love triangle between two men and a woman, who are all thieves. It's very light, but of course there's some action.

By Jennie Yabroff

Jennie Yabroff is a regular contributor to Salon.

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