Dear John Letter

Dear John,

I remember that day long ago when I was just out of college. I was depressed about something — my life ahead, the four years I spent on a useless degree,
how the hell I was supposed to make my dream of becoming a filmmaker a
reality, etc. As always, my escape plan was a good movie. I saw that
there was a Chinese film playing at Cinema Village. I thought, “Hmm, a
good Hsiao-hsien Hou or a Chen Kaige would go good with my mood today.”
What I didn’t realize was that I didn’t walk into some slow-artsy
fartsy Chinese epic about the cultural revolution, I walked into your
movie, “Hard Boiled.” The director’s cut at that!

had no idea what it was. And I had never seen anything like that before
in my life. I knew Bruce Lee. I knew Jackie Chan. But that was the
extent of my knowledge of Hong Kong cinema at that time. I was still
just a New England Korean American boy living in the big city. I didn’t
grow up with the Music Palace
or Hong Kong chop-socky films. “Hard Boiled” blew me away, blew me
apart, blew the roof right off that theater. I think I was one of maybe
ten people in the entire theater, but the blood rushing through me made
me feel like I was at a stadium rock conert in a hurricane. I couldn’t
believe my eyes.

You see, John, I was at a point in my life
where I was doubting that someone like me, an Asian American, could
make films. I didn’t want to make “The Joy Luck Club.”
I never even read “The Joy Luck Club!” I didn’t know anything about
being “Asian” or “Asian American.” I just wanted to make films. But
what the hell kind of movies could I make?

have no idea, but when I watched the magic you created, I realized that
all I had to do was tell the stories that excited me. You taught me
that anything was possible and that you can’t fall victim to the
world’s expectations of you. When Tony Leung and Philip Kwok
ran down the hallway of the infant ward shooting over their heads at
one another, jumping through windows, blasting away, I knew I had
chosen the right path in life. You made Asian film exciting for me.
Hell, you made film exciting for me. You pushed it to the limit. You
made the most lyrical beautiful dances out of shell casings and 9mm
automatics. You will always be a personal hero of mine. You will always
be one of the reasons why I want to make films.

So I went to see “Paycheck” yesterday.

finally happened. The last nail in the coffin. Hollywood finally tamed
you. I will not say that “Paycheck” was an entire piece of crap. It was
watchable. I dug the chase sequence. I thought there were some nice
touches in it. You even have an uncanny knack of being able to cast
actors I hate and still keep me interested. Van Damme in “Hard Target.”
Travolta and Christian Slater
in “Broken Arrow.” Travolta again and Nicholas Cage in “Face/Off.” Tom
Cruise in “MI2” (I know came with the package, but still). And now Ben
Affleck and Uma Thurman? You couldn’t have cast two more uninteresting
actors to carry your movie and yet I still watched.

What I
noticed this time around was that the magic was gone. This was passable
Hollywood-fare. But this wasn’t a John Woo film. Not the John Woo I
remember. Your name was on it. You even had a dove fly in at one point.
But this was no John Woo film. This wasn’t even “Once A Thief.”

I remember when you made “Hard Target
and they reported that you wanted 50 assassins to go after Van Damme’s
mullet-headed hero. The studio said it would be too unbelievable. You
conceded. But I thought, “Okay, they got you this time. But next time,
you just wait.” Then you did “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off” and the
themes of brotherhood that played so well in “The Killer” and “A Better
Tomorrow,” just couldn’t translate. Americans don’t understand
brotherhood and honor.

Admittedly,”Face/Off” came close, but… Nicholas Cage? I’m sure you were thinking he was the same Nicholas Cage as “Valley Girl
and “Raising Arizona,” but he wasn’t. Your Nicholas Cage was one of
those alien replacements of Nicholas Cage like “Invasion of the Body
Snatchers.” That old great Nicholas Cage is gone forever. “Face/Off”
was about the closest I had seen you push to work those old muscles.

then I think it was MI2 that really did you in. It should have been a
perfect match for you. No pressure to create the first in the series. A
winning formula where you could have 50, 100, 300 assassins and it
would make sense. But it was flat. Really flat. From what I heard about
the production — Tom Cruise
demanding to do his own stunts and then locking you out of your own
editing room in post? Who could have survived a blow like that?

Wait a second. Are you a Scientologist now? Travolta? Cruise? Shit. I hope not.

Anyway after “MI2,” I didn’t even bother to go see “Windtalkers.”

thought you were going to come to America and really show Hollywood how
to make a blockbuster action film. I thought you were going to
revolutionize the way people even thought about the genre of action. I
thought you were going to set a new standard for what is an acceptably
photographed gun fight.

After watching “Paycheck,” I realized
it was you that learned something new. Hollywood taught you how to make
a living. I am not upset with you. I totally understand. I remember
reading interviews with you back before you crossed over, about how you
wanted to get your family out of Hong Kong before it was returned to China.
You wanted your children to get good educations. You wanted a better
life, a better tomorrow (sorry for the pun, I had to).

It is
amazing that you were able to forge a career here at all. You are still
considered an A-list director despite not even coming close to the
artistic leaps you had made in younger days. You are directing in a
second language. It’s an amazing journey you have made. You are the Monkey King of Hollywood. I respect you. If nothing else, I will always have respect for you.

In writing this, I did some research and saw that you have finally officially announced that Western with the Chinese gunslinger which was to be the vehicle to reunite you with Chow Yun Fat.
I don’t want to get my hopes up. I will wait. I remember people talking
about this back when you did “Hard Target.” I will wait and see. Maybe
I’ll eat crow. Make me eat crow. And doves and 50 assassins. Please.

is not a traditional “Dear John” letter. I am not breaking up with you.
I am just recognizing that the passion and fire we used to have is not
there any longer. I will still always cherish the times we had
together. How many times I watched the first ten minutes of “Hard
Boiled” just to give myself the courage or the motivation to go back
out there and fight! I will always remember those days fondly. We will
always be friends. Please understand that this isn’t “goodbye,” this is
“take care.”

And please please, try to cast better.

Sincerely Yours,

Mike 2 Cents


15 thoughts on “

  1. i wish i could get more of my friends to read your entries. quality. and i thought i was alone on “face/off”. travolta and cage make me cringe.

  2. I thought he was supposed to make some bank and then green light better projects.  like yours.  isn’t he kind of just putting the foot in the door so he can hold it open for you?
    I’m going to go watch hard boiled now.

  3. Hold the door open? For ten friggin’ years? If he was letting folks in, it’d have happened by now.Actually, I think he had something to do with Anthony Fuqua getting Replacement Killers made. But other than that, I don’t know of any.

  4. Very very nice.
    I saw Paycheck, too.  It was fine.  Not great.  And, you’re right, not a “real” John Woo film. 
    I heard John Woo’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  He apparently had enough clout to make significant changes to the original script.  The movie is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (who’s entire oevre is probably optioned to the hilt by now).  The original script apparently had a LOT more sci-fi in it.
    Mr. Woo changed that and changed the tone.  He said, in the NPR interview, that he moved the feel much closer to the present, and got rid of almost all the sci-fi aspects, except those which were necessary for the plot (ie, the device Ben’s character created).  Which is why the movie “feels” like it was made in some left over soundstages from “Minority Report”.
    In the interview, Mr. Woo also said he wanted to keep his trademark images in the movie, but to try to do them in interesting or new ways.  So, we get the dove, we get the hero/antihero standoff with two guns pointed at each other’s heads, we get the motorcycle chase scene.  But, I got the sense in the interview that Mr. Woo knew that this project carried certain restrictions, and that within the context of those limitations, he experimented with image/craft almost as if in preparation for a later movie where he won’t have those same limitations.
    I am also reminded of a recent interview of Alec Baldwin on the Charlie Rose show.  One of the big points Mr. Baldwin makes is that he now tells younger actors not to do “what he did” (ie, piss off the business people who run Hollywood).  Mr. Baldwin recounted the story of how he lost the Jack Ryan character after Hunt for Red October, and he was clear that it was his fault, and that he regrets it.  Maybe, Mr. Woo learned or knows what Mr. Baldwin learned – that when it’s someone else’s money paying for the production, at some point figuring out how to work within or inside that system is OK (or else you risk not working at all).  Is that a bad thing?
    This also reminds me of another interview I heard on NPR, with Errol Morris (the director of The Thin Blue Line among others).  I didn’t know this, but Mr. Morris has directed many many TV commercials, for products like Miller beer, Adidas, 7-Eleven, and Volkswagen.  And, he said he loves it, loves the work.  I never thought a serious documentarian would be so forthright, but he said that a large part of the appeal was that the TV commercials are discrete projects, where he gets to work and experiment as a director with a large budget (and thus learns stuff for his next film), and that the pay is good.  So, maybe Mr. Morris knows or learned something which Mr. Woo and Mr. Baldwin knows or learned, too.
    Anyway, what I think I’m saying through such a long reply is that I think you’re right.  I think Mr. Woo made some choices in projects which had inherent limitations on what he could do, and other choices where he maybe didn’t press as hard as he might have.  And lurking in the background is your insight that he has personal, family reasons for wanting to try to work within the Hollywood system.  And I, like you, hope that he’s going to use what he’s learned from the system and put it to good use in a film (or several films) where he won’t have these same kind of inherent limitations due to pre-arranged casting or whatever.
    Now, having solved that issue, can we talk about Kill Bill Vol. 2 yet?  And what’s happened to Tarantino?  No?  Too soon?
    Peace out.     

  5. Tarantino will get his time. He is not to crowd the blog space of a master like Mr. Woo. As for your insight into the maneuvering of a filmmaker in Hollywood. I think it’s a bigger problem than just making money for John Woo. I think the whole studio system is antithetical to what made him brilliant in the past. In Hollywood, he can have unlimited CGI and other special effects. In Hong Kong, there were other kinds of limits (mostly financial) that forced him to be more creative. I think it is actually harder for him to truly be inspired when he has a glut of resources and at the same time has to maneuver within a studio system. I wish he would scale back and find his roots. The Chow Yun Fat Western (which BTW is also slated to star Nicholas Cage, blech) is quoted at $30 million. That is unheard of in Asia. They don’t make films for $30 million. And here that isn’t even all that big. The passion for me that has been missing in every HK crossover has been the sense of danger. When Jackie Chan hangs from the helicopter in Super Cop 3, that is insane. When Chow Yun Fat comes flying out of the church guns a-blazing in The Killer, that is intense. When they do it in Hollywood, there is so much sheen and shine to it that it all feels safe and sterile. But I may be alone in this; I am the type of guy who much prefers the Coney Island Cyclone to Six Flags Batman and Robin. Why? Because one of these days, The Cyclone is going to fall apart mid-ride and that is truly scary and exciting.

  6. hahah great letter, can you send it to him? we should address some other letters too to jet li, jackie, and chow yun fat… they “crossed over” and sucked. when is the last decent jackie chan film you’ve seen?? i watched “medallion” last night and i damn near ripped my hair out! when was any of their last decent films?? i notice this trend started when they left and came here… when the “door opened”i been reminding myself recently about what i loved about these guys… chow yun fat in “prison on fire” and “fractured follies” MAN that guy has range and charisma!! he comes here and what does he learn? KUNG FU! he didnt know ANY in HK!!! i actually dont want anymore stars to “cross over” they have to stop. their careers are so much better where they are. example, Tony Leung. we really have to do it ourselves without them…

  7. i agree that hollywood has ruined john woo and others who have crossed over. if only it could be as simple as asking him to go back to HK and making some movies without nicholas cage

  8. Yo this site don’t allow 10 eprops. This blog is true true. I thought I was at the AAWW for a poetry reading and wanted to pump my fist in the air.Good comments too.

  9. Not being a part of the movie industry or anything related to film myself, it’s difficult for me to say, but it seems like there is a tension in hoping for Asian and Asian-American filmmakers to succeed (in the U.S.), yet retain the qualities that made them unique in the first place.  Many times, I will see a movie involving Asian Americans and really WANT to like it, but when I sit back and am honest with myself,  I realize that deep down, the movie in question wasn’t all that good. 

  10. Unfortunately, SammyStorm, the problem is that there isn’t enough Asian American film out there for you to choose from. It would be ridiculous to think that just because it is by or about Asian Americans that it is enough to earn your interest. The best thing you can do is just keep looking and hoping one comes around that you connect with. I personally think there have been some really great Asian American films, but it has been an effort to actually find them. Sorry, you haven’t found any that have spoken to you.

  11. you better watch out for speeding cars mr.mike2cents. they might just hit you.just kidding! your comment seriously almost gave me a heart attack before i saw the “just kidding.” i was like, “whoooo da hellllll…???”!!!ok.

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