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by laurence boyce | october 7th, 2000

"Getting Away With It": Violence and Masculinity in the Films of John Woo

"In a John Woo movie, bullets kill people. Lots of them … extras do not get up rubbing their heads after being shot … (n)or does the flying lead miraculously avoid innocent bystanders. But even in these hyper-sensitive times, he gets away it" I

Violence in the cinema has always been the subject of much debate. Whether it is the effect scenes of violence will have upon an audience or how graphic such scenes should be, it seems that the discussion will continue endlessly. Yet it is interesting that on screen violence can be reacted to in many different ways. For example Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, Miramax, USA, 1991) caused an outcry when it was released. The torture scene in the film has been described as ‘ ...unwatchably graphic’ii. But the only real act of violence in that scene (when somebody’s ear is sliced off) actually takes place off camera, lasting a few seconds at most with the total sum of violence in the film adding up to no more than 3 minutes. In contrast Lashou shentan / Hard Boiled (John Woo, Golden Princess Film Production Limited, Hong Kong, 1992) has a finale, lasting around 40 minutes, in which numerous people are brutally killed (including innocent hospital patients), newborn babies are threatened and a Hospital is blown up. Here the violence is described as " … unbelievable action sequences that are bloody, comic and hypnotic"iii. It seems that John Woo can indeed "get away with it". But why is this? What can make one form of violence unwatchable whilst another form is pleasurable? I think Woo is especially interesting to look at in terms of this question. Whilst being famous for his breathtaking depictions of gunplay and action he is also considered by many to be a romantic filmmaker dealing with notions of love, honour and friendship. Is it perhaps these sensibilities that Woo uses to make his violence pleasurable? Here I will examine the factors that make up the violence in Woo’s work and attempt to ascertain how these can fit in with the idea that he is a romantic. More importantly I will try and show exactly what it is about his presentation of violence that could make it pleasurable as opposed to repulsive.

I think that it is initially important to examine the themes that run through Woo’s films in order to understand better his use of violence. According to Stephen Teo the theme that runs throughout Woo’s films is concerned with the Japanese code of yi:

"Yi postulates a system of brotherhood, honour and justice binding all within a … a fraternity, whether criminal or otherwise"iv

This can be seen in many of his films. For example in Diexie Shuangxiong / The Killer (John Woo, Golden Princess Film Production Ltd, Hong Kong, 1989) Jeff Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) is a professional killer whereas Inspector Li (Danny Lee) is a cop. Yet they are both similar in the moral codes that they follow. When Jeff saves the life of a small girl during a gun battle, Li is impressed by his actions. There are points when Woo visually matches Jeff and Li making us question how similar both cop and killer actually are. We ask the same question again when ,in Hard Boiled, Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) walks down amongst the bookshelves of a library where a murder has been committed. This is intercut with scenes of Tony (Tony Leung) doing exactly the same thing whilst planning the murder. Initially then the characters in a Woo film would seem to be ambiguous. Who is actually ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’? This ambiguity is prevalent in Face/Off (John Woo, Paramount, USA, 1997) when Sean Archer (John Travolta / Nicholas Cage) and Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage/ John Travolta) swap identities so that hero and villain become almost interchangeable. It is in fact this almost simplistic ideal that informs much of his work: the identification of good and evil and the battle between those two forces. Jeff may be a killer, but he is ultimately shown to be good. It is not the profession that defines him but more the moral code that he lives by. Woo, in reference to The Killer, has said:

" A killer and a cop represent two extremely different worlds but inside they have the common values of nobility and chivalry … I tried to convey that a good person is often misunderstood by society … a true knight has no need for recognition from those around him because his actions are the most important thing"v

This is seen in Hard Boiled . Tony is revealed as an undercover cop, infiltrating the operation of an arms dealer. Tequila, with no knowledge of this, has no idea where his loyalties lie and, for much of the film, neither do the audience. At one point he exclaims "So busy being a gangster, I don’t know which me is real". It is only when he joins up with Tequila in the final shoot out, and dies in the process, that we can finally be sure of where he stands. His last words before death are "I’m a cop". Therefore, in Woo’s films, it can be argued that it is only via their actions (which is chiefly violence) that we can truly define the morality and identity of a character. Therefore if it is violence that defines who is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ then couldn’t there also be violence which is coded as ‘good’ and that which is coded as ‘bad’. Woo often claim that he directs the action scenes in his films as " … one would cheoreograph a musical"vi, a "Busby Berkeley of Bullets" if you will. In keeping with this analogy of the musical I think that it is interesting in Woo’s work if we examine the violence in terms of its spontaneity. In a musical you are given characters who will spontaneously burst into song no matter where they are. In a John Woo film you will have characters who will spontaneously engage in a gun battle no matter where they are. The spontaneity in Woo’s films is something that is meant to be a good quality, and brings pleasure to the audience. For example there is a scene in The Killer in which Jeff is left without a gun. Seeing one, he kicks over the table on which the gun is lying to cause it to go spinning through the air. He grabs it and, in one smooth motion, dispatches the rest of his opponents with ease. Visually, we get pleasure from this as we see the gun flying through the air in slow motion and the smoothness of Jeff’s movements. Perhaps we also admire him for his quick thinking. The visual aspect of the violence immediately makes us empathise with the character: we get pleasure from the violence he commits. Woo can then use this empathy and tie it in with the themes that he is attempting to explore. It seems Woo deliberately codes this spontaneous violence as being ‘good’ and associates it with ‘good’ characters. For example, the opening of Face/Off has Castor Troy preparing to kill Sean Archer, as he rides on a merry-go-round with his son. Castor lies in the bushes with his gun, and calmly sips from a drink. He then takes aim and shoots. Sean and his son fall to the ground. Whilst the fall is in slow motion there seems nothing particularly graceful about it. Similarly when Johnny (Anthony Wong) kills a room of patients in Hard Boiled the violence is quick and brief without any recourse to beautiful visuals. We immediately then have a sense of this kind of violence being coded as ‘evil’. It ends in the death of innocents and does not have the visual intensity of that which is coded as ‘good’. It is cold and calculating whereas the ‘good’ is spontaneous. Thus those who are good do not cause the violence, merely react to it. Those who are evil are the cause. Again notice how at the beginning of The Killer, when we are unsure about his character, Jeff causes the violence (by carrying out his assassination and accidentally blinding a nightclub singer). The first time we see him actually react to a violent situation (an attempt on his life on a beach) he saves the life of a little girl. We admire him because he doesn’t have to think, he just has to act and by now his actions have meant that we realise that he is good. As Teo says:

"In Woo’s films it is the code of yi which helps to confer meaning and moral ?justification, changing the beast’s fundamental nature into one of knightly ?gallantry"vii

I think that in his films, Woo creates a symbiotic relationship between violence and the code of yi. One informs the other. I think that linked in with this idea of spontaneity is the notion of control. According to Jason Jacobs:

"Mastery and power … are directly contrasted with the loss of control over the ?body, the messy exit of blood and the involuntary convulsions"viii

Certainly, this is the way in which the hired gangsters die in Hard Boiled: we see them writhe as blood flies and they involuntarily fire their guns at the floor. Often slow motion is used during these deaths. Here, I think it is important to note that Woo never actually flinches from the consequences of violence unlike many films (i.e. somebody is shot, they hold their chest, groan and fall down gracefully to die). With Woo bodies fly back from the impact of the guns and spin around uncontrollably in the air. But because these deaths are stylised as to accentuate the loss of control, we do not feel sorry for these people and, more importantly, are not repulsed by the violence used against them. As Jacobs says:

"Society continually offers us examples of how we cannot do anything about our situation … we seem to have less and less control over what happens to us… (this is why) it feels so damn good to watch gunfire in these films (because) the desire to shoot back is positive"ix

In Woo’s films it is not just the mere act of committing violence that is so positive but the control shown during the course of the acts of violence themselves. When we see that Tequila can slide down a set of banisters with guns in his hands and maintain a perfect aim all the way down we are seeing a man who not only has control of the situation but also over his own body as well. In Face/Off Woo makes much of the rhythmic ejection of the cartridges from the gun as if showing man’s mastery over machine. Woo’s usage of various cinematic techniques accentuates the violence in different ways. Whereas the slow motion accentuated the loss of control in the death of the gangsters, it is also used to accentuate the amount of control that some characters have. For example, when we see Tequila dive through a car to escape an explosion we see sparks fly rhythmically in the air as he gracefully tumbles through the back of the car, as pieces of exploding metal spin off into the distance. It is balletic and it is beautiful. I also think that it works on a higher level than just living vicariously through the characters (i.e. we like them because they have a kind of physical control that we will never have). The use of slow motion and other devices gives us control over viewing the image. To witness a real explosion would be to see chaos, over in a flash. With Woo we get to see every rotating shard of glass, each ball of flame with a control never afforded to us in the real world. The films offer us characters who have control but also offer some form of control to us. Again we see how Woo is using the violence, in particular the reactions that we will have to that violence, to differentiate between good and evil. He himself says:

"My heroes use their self-discipline to combat injustice"x

Notice at the end of Hard Boiled how Johnny attempts to force Tequila to say that he’s impotent, i.e. that he has no control. Those who are bad are clearly marked out as they are given no such physical control, as opposed to those who are good.

Returning to the musical for a second, a review for Hard Boiled the action scenes are described as "… big production numbers"xi. I think that the way in which he arranges the violent set pieces throughout his films is also crucial to an understanding of how violence is used in his films. It reveals a playfulness to Woo and to the violence which lessens it’s ability to shock or appal us. Throughout the films the violence occurs in large, visually excessive fight sequences. So, as we may wait in anticipation for a song in a musical, we wait in anticipation for the next action scene in a Woo film. I think this anticipation is partly where our pleasure in the violence comes from: we want to see more explosions and gunfights. Woo I think is prepared to play around with this In the latter half of Hard Boiled, after set pieces where we have come to expect gunplay and explosions, Tony and Tequila end up in a weapons storage facility. Surrounded by this multitude of weapons they proceed to have a fist fight. Woo knows that we have been anticipating their arrival at the arsenal: after all, we have seen what they can do with two guns, what will happen when they are surrounded by a whole room of them ! By staging a fight, Woo keeps us entertained but keeps us waiting for the action to go further. Woo again seems to be manipulating the audience, as he never seems to put sudden, random acts of violence in his films, which would serve to shock us. By making us wait between set pieces seems to explicitly present the violence to us as pleasure, "...something worth waiting for".

In relation to this I think it is interesting how Woo uses images of children in his work. There are scenes of young children witnessing violence in all three films that I have discussed. In Face/Off a small child watches a violent raid going on around him whilst listening to "Somewhere over the Rainbow" on a pair of headphones. We see the child as he looks upon the carnage goes on around. He has a wondrous, inquisitive look on his face. As Woo makes the song prevalent on the soundtrack and mutes the gunfire, we survey the scene as a child would. It is visually fascinating, even for this child who is at the centre of danger. It seems to constitute a game of ‘human fireworks’ than it does of people inflicting harm upon one another. The use of "Somewhere over the rainbow" in this scene with its connotations of innocence and childhood perhaps make us interpret the violence we are seeing in a different way. Similarly in Hard Boiled Tequila attempts to rescue a new-born and carries him around whilst laying waste to those around him. It suggests to me that there is a childlike, almost innocent element to those who commit violence in the name of good.

For example the new-born gets blood on his face so Tequila wipes it off citing "Hey, X-Rated action". Whilst this line is another example of Woo’s playfulness it is also an example of how Tequila can be both empathetic and tender to this child. Because of his interaction with the child he becomes much more innocent in our eyes. The more innocent he appears to be, the violence he commits seems to be all the more innocent to us. Tom Tunney notes:

"The baby won’t get its head blown off - if it did, we’d be in a much more ?interesting film"xii

I don’t agree. If Woo is using the child as part of the mechanism to ensure that we see Tequila as good, then he could also use the child to ensure that we see people as bad. Thus we always fear for the safety of the baby and that doubles our relief when he is saved by Tequila. Interestingly Tequila, Jeff and Sean Archer are all responsible for saving the life of a child in their respective films, whilst in the midst of excessively violent situations. Notice also how Jeff and Li refer to themselves as "Mickey" and "Dumbo" throughout The Killer. Tony makes a paper crane for every person that he has killed: a childlike memorial to violence. Any violence that they commit will always be tempered by the innocent side of their nature that has been revealed. I think that this is also important in terms the spirituality in Woo’s films. Woo himself is a strong Christian and I think this comes across strongly in his films. For example, let’s take some key moments from The Killer. At one point Jeff has bullets removed from his back, without any anaesthetic, whilst laid down in front of a cross. At the end of the film Jeff is finally killed during a massacre in a church. The final shot of the film is a flashback from earlier of Jeff playing a harmonica whilst gazing up at the night sky. It seems to be that Jeff has suffered and died for his sins and ascended to heaven. According to Woo:

"The killer (Jeff) is a man who does bad things, but he wants to be good. That’s why I put him in a church at the beginning. He is fed up with killing and wants to stop"xii

But Jeff does not stop killing, yet he is still identified as good by the end of the film. If we assume then that the end of the film does indicate that he is in heaven then we must also assume that he has been forgiven for his sins, which in turn would suggest there is something redemptive about the type of violence that he commits in the time before his death. It seems that in Woo’s films that Christianity, that which espouses love, honour and friendship, is also linked in with the violence. Note how in the church shoot outs in both The Killer and Face/Off that it those who are bad who are responsible for the destruction of religious iconography. Their violence has no redemptive quality, it can only destroy.

Initially I wanted to look at the romantic aspect to Woo’s films. Woo himself has said "I often have to hide the romantic side of my nature … so I put all my romance in my films". I think that we have already seen that themes of honour and morality are prevalent in his work whilst Julian Sandell notes that "... the very filmic techniques used - such as soft-focus, slow-motion and subtle colours- characterise the violence (itself) romantic"xiv. But I think that a crucial part of the romanticism in Woo’s films is the realtionship between the main characters in the film. We immediately can tell that Woo’s films have a lack of strong female characters. Instead it is the relationships between the male protagonists that is the key. The first time that Tony and Tequila meet each other face to face in Hard Boiled they have a gun pointed at the others head. There is almost exactly the same scene in The Killer. Violence is the only thing that they initially have in common and thus it is the only way in which they can communicate. Notice how in the climactic shoot out of Hard Boiled both Tequila and Tony work in perfect tandem, anticipating the others move with perfect precision. The have equality in the violence that they commit and, by association, their morals as well. However Sandell, in reference to the relationship between characters in Woo’s movies, argues that:

"The doubling of Jeff and the cop (in The Killer) … is coded as intensely homoerotic. (In one scene he argues that) Jeff’s eyes are full of passion and … that he is no ordinary assassin"xv

Certainly I would agree that there appears to be a strong element of homoeroticism in the male relationships in both The Killer and Hard Boiled. Would could even argue that in Face/Off both Sean and Castor are presented with the chance for the ultimate narcissistic relationship: with themselves ( "You’re a handsome man" Castor / Sean tells Sean / Castor at one point) But the violence that is inherent to all these characters seems to dissipate any notion of it being any kind of sexual relationship. The relationships between both Jeff and Li and Tony and Tequila are only truly defined during moments of extreme violence, when they are injured and faced with possible death . According to Jacobs:

"Such intimacy and close physical contact between between wounded men carries a powerful cultural message: it’s okay to touch me now — I’m bleeding. I’m dying."xvi

Thus the moments of greatest understanding between the males in the films can only come at a moment of extreme violence. Two scenes stand out in The Killer. The first is where Li cauterises one of Jeff’s wounds with gunpowder and a cigarette. It is a moment of extreme intimacy as Jeff allows someone to cause him extreme pain. This brief moment of violence has brought them closer together. Moments later he exclaims "The only one who really knows me turns out to be a cop". Secondly, in the midst of their climactic encounter in the church Li is finally moved to ask Jeff what his name is. "Call me Mickey" he replies. Another moment like this occurs in Hard Boiled when there is what could almost be described as a moment of tenderness between Tony and Tequila after the former accidentally shoots a cop. Tequila does everything in his power to and persuade him that he is mistaken, trying to make Tony feel better. The fact that this is taking place during an extremely violent situation strengthens the friendships that these men have together. This is were I think that the excess of the violence in Woo’s movies is important. The more excessive the violence, the relationship between the characters can be all the more romanticised and intense. In Face/Off the violence keeps Sean and Castor apart as that is the only thing that can differentiate the two. As long as they interact with each other within a violent arena, their masculinity is never threatened. So once again the violence becomes part of the pleasure for us as it becomes an agent for creating friendship and loyalty. This idealistic notion of friendship and loyalty sits perfectly with the romantic vision Woo has for his films

Poppy Z. Brite has said:

"I believe that many viewers are upset by (violent) films ... not because they ?encourage violence but because they offer no reassurance against it"xvii

I think that the above quote is an example of why John Woo can ‘get away’ with his depictions of excessive violence. It is violence itself that is reassuring as it is constantly part of a complex series of relationships. Throughout his films the violence is never just a means to an end. It is tightly bound into ideas of morality and friendship. Furthermore he codes the violence so there is that which is delineated as good and that which is bad and he makes these divisions clear within his films. It seems to me that Woo knows that themes of loyalty, honour and friendship can be difficult to get across to a modern audience and so took the decision to convey these sentiments through the violence. It is his willingness to manipulate the audience and his skill in doing so that marks the violence in his films as both visually breathtaking and inherently moral. In fact, for all his technical bravado, much of Woo’s work always seems to boil down as the constant battle between good and evil, albeit applied in a complex way to the violence that we are presented with. Despite the high stylisation of the violence and the excessive nature of some of his scenes, I think that just manages to avoid the fine line that would make it totally ridiculous. Again, I’ll mention that when need be, he will show the consequences of violence. After all, if the violence was dismissed as ridiculous, so would the message that Woo is attempting to convey through that violence. Ultimately the violence in the films of John Woo wants to reassure us that justice will triumph in the end. Carrying this inherently positive message it is almost impossible to view the violence in his films in negative terms.


Anon. " Voyager Essay: Interview with John Woo", Gods Amongst Directors, <>, World Wide Web Publication, Accessed April 2000

Brite, P.Z. 1996. "The Poetry of violence" in French 1996. Pgs 62-70

Dannen, F and Long, B.1997. "Hong Kong Babylon: An insider’s guide to the Hollywood of the East". Faber and Faber. London

French, K (ed.) 1996. Screen Violence. Bloomsbury. London

Im, S. "The Big bang: Interview with John Woo", Gods Amongst Directors < >, World Wide Web Publication. Accessed April 2000

Jacobs, J. 1995. "Gunfire" in French 1996. Pgs 162 —170

Sandell, J. 1994. "A Better Tomorrow ?: American Masochism and Hong Kong Action Films", Bad Subjects < >, 1994, World Wide Web publication. Accessed April 2000

Smith, I. 1997. "Automatics for the people" Empire (Dec ’97)

Teo,S. 1995`. Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. BFI. London

Tunney, T. 1992. "Review of Lashou shentan / Hard Boiled", Sight and Sound (Oct ’93) Pg 47

Woo, J. 1993. "Chinese Poetry in motion". Sight and Sound

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