Wooed from the heart

It is hardly surprising to discover that the high-octane violence of John Woo has been censored. But Ryan Gilbey finds the director is a man who treasures emotion in his films and yearns for the human touch.

John Woo's films are ostentatious banquets of violence. You are never more than five minutes away from a shoot-out. His knack for choreographing surreal action sequences means that his characters never have to worry about the laws of physics or gravity. They fly through the air with the greatest of ease, these magnificent men with handguns in both fists and an apparently endless supply of ammunition.

When censorship finally caught up with Woo, it was not in the way he had anticipated. The censors in Hong Kong banned Young Dragons, his first feature, fearing that young audiences might imitate its scenes of violence. When he arrived in America at the start of this decade after 20 years as one of the world's most successful and influential action directors, he naturally thought that such incidents were behind him. It was a reasonable assumption, given that he was worshipped in Hollywood.

He made his American debut with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target, and no sooner had he called the final "Cut!" than the studio waded in brandishing their scissors. The violence wasn't a problem. The dramatic content was. "Originally the film was pretty emotional", says Woo, a small, excessively polite man, when I meet him at London's Dorchester Hotel.

"The first cut was stylish, too. Slow-motion, freeze-frames, lots of drama."

A specially invited audience of Jean-Claude Van Damme fans were crammed in for a test screening. Unable to cope with a film which sometimes went whole minutes without featuring Van Damme kick-boxing or displaying one of his magnificent oiled pectorals, they switched into "Do not compute" mode and responded the only way they knew how, with derision; the studio executives panicked. The dramatic scenes were excised, leaving something closer to pure action. And pure poppycock.

"The studio were afraid", Woo says, "so they removed any scene that had genuine emotions and genuine heart in it. That really hurt me."

Now Woo is having the last laugh on those who doubted that he could make the transition from cult favourite to mainstream director. His new film, Face/Off, is an ingenious thriller in which notions of identity and moral responsibility are rigorously investigated. Did I mention that lots of things get blown up, too?

It tells the hilariously implausible tale of a cop (John Travolta) and a psychopath (Nicolas Cage) who, for reasons too convoluted and absurd to venture into, swap faces and irrevocably alter each others' lives. The repercussions are infinite, and infinitely fascinating. Some cultural commentators argue that the film's success is down to Woo favouring good old-fashioned stunt work over CGI (computer generated imagery). They're wrong. Face/Off has grossed around $10m in the US because people love it when you mess with their heads. It is the best brain tease since Terminator.

John Woo turned down the screenplay six years ago, because it "was too sci-fi". Three years later, it turned up in his in-tray once again, with significant alterations.

"It was better", Woo says. "But I suggested further changes to make it more human."

Human is a word that keeps cropping up when you talk to John Woo. Is it a reflex action to divert your attention away from his films' violence and towards their consistently impeccable moral fibre?

Despite the fact that Face/Off features a body-count that is quite possibly in quadruple figures, Woo talks most enthusiastically of its humanity, its emphasis on "family values" and attributes its success to the fact that "human goodness is international."

I ask if the film is in fact motivated by the Travolta character's struggle to come to terms with the death of his son. Woo is quick to puncture my pomposity. He just smiles and says: "Yeah."

It's true that he is a conscientious director, sometimes to the point of absurdity, as demonstrated by the presence of doves in Face/Off, or the lingering shots of deer grazing and butterflies fluttering moments before a nuclear explosion in his latest film, Broken Arrow. "These things are to show that I am a very hopeful person", he says. "There is always hope. Even though the world is full of ugliness. Look at the characters in my work. They are usually somewhere between good and evil, because you will find that there are no real bad guys in humankind. We can learn from the best, but we can also learn from the worst."

I suddenly feel very humble indeed, and instantly resolve to be kind to children and estate agents for the rest of the week.

When he goes on to tell me that he counts as his hero anyone who possesses a good heart and is always kind to others, I am genuinely moved, a feeling which is only slightly diminished when I read that same line in two other interviews with Woo.

Anyway, I'm not about to doubt the sincerity of a man who can find such a succinct method of channelling his conscience into his art, as this director does in one exceptional sequence in Face/Off. The situation is a messy and violent shoot-out. So far, so Woo. But with one crucial exception: it is shot in slow-motion from the perspective of a young child who is listening to "Over the Rainbow" on a pair of headphones.

How did this daring scene come to fruition?

"The script just said: the gang are being ambushed and the hero saves the little boy", he remembers. "As we started shooting it, with people firing at each other, I thought: This is boring! I started thinking about the real world. Why do people have to kill? What is a human life worth? Can't we just stop killing and talk?

"Let's change the whole scene by putting a headset on the boy and playing music over the violence, with the song showing the innocence and purity of the child. I wanted to get that anti-violence feeling. I was so excited - it was all so spontaneous! But those are the moments which make the producers panic."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee