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After John Woo’s 54-Year Career He Says: “I’m dying to make a musical…”

John Woo was born on May 1, 1946, in Guangzhou, Republic of China, during the Chinese Civil War into a Christian family. They faced persecution after the communist revolution and fled to Hong Kong when he was five years old. There they were extremely poor and lived in high-crime slums. His father had tuberculosis and was unable to work; his mother was a manual laborer on construction sites. A shy boy, he recalled in a Time interview online being beaten up every time he went out and feeling like he lived in hell.

As a young boy, he wanted to be a Christian minister but later fell in love with movies, especially those of the French New Wave. He got a job as a script supervisor at Cathay Studios in 1969, then became an assistant director at Shaw Studios in 1971. He never attended film school.

Woo’s directorial debut in 1974 was the feature-length kung fu film The Young Dragons which was choreographed by Jackie Chan. He did more martial arts films, but most were not very profitable. He didn’t have creative control of his movies and found himself in a slump. Luckily, money came through to film A Better Tomorrow (1986), a story he’d long wanted to make, an emotional drama about two brothers (one a cop, one a criminal). It was highly regarded and made a lot of money, which allowed him to make more action thrillers.

1989’s The Killer gained him a cult reputation in the U.S. as a master stylist specializing in violent gangster films and thrillers, with very elaborate action scenes. (It was listed in the Hong Kong Film Awards List of the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures in March 2005.) It starred Chow Yun-fat as an assassin who accidentally blinds a singer and then goes on one last job to get the funds for an operation to restore her sight.


Woo emigrated to the United States in 1993. Universal Studios hired him to direct Hard Target. He had difficulty adjusting to Hollywood standards and the studio ended up assuming control of the film and edited it enough to get an “R” rating. After that, a long dry spell was broken in 1996 with Broken Arrow, starring John Travolta and Christian Slater, which again found the director hampered by editorial concerns.

Paramount Pictures offered the director more freedom with Face/Off (1997). A story of law enforcement agent John Travolta and terrorist Nicolas Cage, who both alter their identities with surgery, it was a huge financial hit that also garnered critical acclaim.

In 2002, Mission: Impossible 2, starring Tom Cruise, was the highest-grossing film in America that year. Windtalkers (2002) and Paycheck (2003) didn’t do that well financially or critically.


In 2005, Woo had the honor of being asked to join the jury of the 48th Cannes Film Festival.

Branching out in 2007, he directed and produced Stranglehold, a video game (which was resurrected in 2019). He also produced Appleseed: Ex Machina, an animated CG science fiction film, and created Seven Brothers, a five-issue graphic comic book and animated web series with Garth Ennis. Woo told animationmagazine.net in 2011, “For me, working in comics is quite comfortable—it’s like the ultimate storyboard.”

He returned to Asian cinema in 2008 with the two-part epic war movie, Red Cliff, which was his first Chinese film since his time in Hollywood. Another two-part, four-hour epic film, The Crossing (2014 and 2015), had an all-star cast, and has been called “China’s Titanic.” 2017’s Manhunt, is a story about a lawyer being framed for murder, which critics have called a nostalgic retread of Woo’s earlier Chinese films.

In 2010, Woo received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival.


Woo’s new action/thriller movie, Silent Night, has begun filming in Mexico City. The story sounds like a familiar one for him (a father on a mission to avenge his young son, caught in the crossfire of gang violence on Christmas Eve), but uniquely, the film will not have any dialogue.

He’s also scheduled to direct a re-imagining of his 1989 The Killer for a 2023 release on Peacock. Woo told thefilmstage.com, “The biggest reason why I wanted to do this movie again is because I wanted the killer to be a woman—that’s exciting to me. It will make the movie have a different look.”

His prolific 54-year career has been exciting, and he will no doubt continue to deliver blockbuster action, but here’s a surprise — he told Time magazine in the aforementioned YouTube interview that he would really like to do a musical. “I’m dying to make a musical … I got a script. I tried to make it as an action musical but it’s hard to get financing. And it’s hard to get a star because what we want is someone who can sing and dance and shoot. But I’m still working on it. If I can’t make it in Hollywood, probably I’ll try to make it in China.”