Orthodox believers, however, say that Hollywood Woo is diluted Woo, and the true revelation is to be found in his Hong Kong titles, such as The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1989), both of which star the charismatic, baby-faced, heavy Chow Yun-Fat, and both of which are re-released here on Friday. It was the likes of The Killer that made Quentin Tarantino - the director of Reservoir Dogs, which borrowed heavily from Woo's films - describe him as 'the most exciting director to emerge in action cinema since Sergio Leone', and which prompted Sam Raimi (Darkman) to declare that 'John Woo is to action what Hitchcock is to suspense'.
After such hype, and particularly after boggling at Hard Boiled's gory, incendiary set pieces, you might well expect the man himself to storm into the interview room screaming and drooling, with guns blazing from each hand (a Woo trademark) and a trail of shattered corpses in his wake. Instead, Woo proves to be a slight, neatly dressed and quietly spoken gentleman, embarrassed by all the adulation, and keen to deny rumours of his divinity. 'I think it's frightening. I don't want to be God because it's too lonely up there. I just feel like I'm a simple, hard- working . . . crazy film director.'
Crazy is his little joke, but it's not without foundation. This, after all, is the director who is so obsessive that he once reprimanded an actor who was reluctant to fall forward on his face by first executing the stunt himself and then head-butting the ground until the terrified actor gave in; so driven that one day during the making of Hard Target he forgot to visit the men's room and had a little accident. And even if he were as self-effacing on set as he is in person, the content of the films is quite enough to suggest that a cautious approach is in order.
Yet Woo insists that he disapproves of violence in real life, and denies that his prodigious body-counts are in any way gratuitous: 'It's not violence for its own sake. I don't want to give the audience a bad influence. My kind of violence is so much like cartoons, artistic, romantic . . .' (Woo's English is competent but not nimble, which tends to thwart pursuit of his more abstract points. Fortunately, his producer, Terence Chang, speaks impeccable American English, and is on hand to supply glosses.)
Cartoon-like it may be, but Woo's brand of apocalyptic shoot-up proved too meaty for the American ratings board, which repeatedly bounced Hard Target back to him for trims before it would pass it for the youth market. 'In Hong Kong they understand, they all know my kind of action is very artistic, very special style, so whenever I get any problems for the rating, they will usually give you some suggestion for cuts that can be made without hurting the movie. So if I have a hero shooting a guy with 15 bullets, they will suggest to cut out three or four bullets, and I still can keep 11 bullets. . . and have a good impact. But in the States it was a little frustrating, they never let me know what the real problem was, and also they never told me the specific points of what I needed to cut to get a rating. So we did our first cut by guessing, cutting a little bit here, a little bit here . . .
Chang interjects: 'Like the sequence where the guy has his ear sliced off. We decided to cut that out ourselves.'
'. . . and we had to go back to them seven times before they passed our cut]'
Toning down the carnage was not the only compromise Woo had to make. Working for almost the first time in his career with someone else's script, he had little opportunity to develop the themes (male bonding, the identity of cop and gangster, the fragility of innocence and suchlike) that pound out of his Chinese- language films with the insistent regularity of slugs from a machine gun. The Woo touch is visible chiefly in the rapid-fire fluency of its editing - yes, he really does direct action outstandingly well - and in the comic spin he puts on one or two scenes. ('Like the scene where the lonely cop sings Happy Birthday to herself.')
Despite the frustrations, he intends to stay in America. With one eye cocked to Hong Kong's uncertain future after 1997, he has already moved his family to Los Angeles, and is developing several projects - a script by his fan Quentin Tarantino, a thriller about terrorism and even an epic, 'like Kurosawa's Ran' about an ancient Chinese war. And does the director described by BBC 2's Moving Pictures as 'the Mozart of mayhem' have a long-term artistic ambition? 'Oh yes,' Woo smiles shyly. 'I would like to make a romantic love story.'
'Hard Target' opens in November.
MAKING A KILLING
CHOW YUN-FAT has become a superstar in south-east Asia thanks to his tough guy roles for John Woo in films like Hard Boiled and The Killer (both opening tomorrow), but he's not what you'd expect from a typical action hero. He may be able to fire guns simultaneously with both hands (an indispensible talent in a Woo picture), but he can also, more unusually, do it with Cary Grant's charm.
'No actor wants to stick with one role,' he says. 'Yet the US audience considers Mr Chow an action or martial arts actor. Actually I do an awful lot of comedy in Hong Kong, which the audience likes very much.' His great ambition is to play the Bogart role in a remake of Casablanca.
He was working in a factory in 1973 when a newspaper ad for the newly formed training school at TVP (one of Hong Kong's biggest television stations) caught his eye. He went for an audition, and ended up under contract there for the next 13 years, becoming a household name for his role in the long- running TV series Shanghai Town.
Gradually, he began to land roles in movies, but his big break did not come until Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986). The film's producer had been pressured not to cast Chow, but he proved so popular that his character, Mark Gor, a Triad assassin killed in one of Woo's trademark bullet-strewn finales, was resurrected for the sequel as Mark's brother. And A Better Tomorrow III was even written as a prequel in order to include him.
He is not worried by the high level of violence in Hong Kong action cinema, claiming it to be 'just one of our techniques of expression. No matter how the set is falling, I'm still acting and following what I'm doing in a shot.'
Still, there are occupational hazards, like having to act opposite a baby, in Hard Boiled. And, at the end of The Killer, Chow recalls, 'One of the plastic incendiaries packed on the floor hit me right here' (he touches his forehead). 'My eyes were covered in blood. They called the ambulance for me - I said no. I'll stay until this movie is finished.'