Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) and the Value of John Woo’s Sincerity

When John Woo jumped down from the heights of his Hong Kong action heyday in Hard Boiled to the more pedestrian American mold of action cinema in its follow-up, Hard Target, you could immediately feel a tampering of his penchant for excess. It takes Hard Target nearly an hour of contextual narrative buildup before the over-the-top excess of Jean-Claude Van Damme punching rattle snakes, gangsters shooting up Mardi Gras parade floats, and Wilford Brimely going full Crazy Cajun in the film’s third act. Hard Boiled, by contrast, starts with one of its most chaotically violent set pieces (the showdown staged at the bird-watching tea house) and mostly maintains that same intensity throughout. Hard Target plays a little like a compromise, with American studio execs only allowing Woo’s sensibilities to show at the seams instead of flying at the screen full-force at every possible opportunity, as they had in his past Hong Kong efforts. As much as the 90s action thrillers that followed in the footsteps of Hard Boiled and its Hong Kong contemporaries were highly entertaining, they were often self-aware about not coming across as silly in a way the films that inspired them weren’t. Hard Boiled is entirely unembarrassed by its indulgences in excess and cheese. Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) doesn’t play jazz clarinet or drive around to cheesy synth-pop in a convertible as a sly wink to the audience; he does it because it supposedly looks cool. Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) doesn’t wear an eye patch or ride his motorcycle through a wall of flames to distract the audience from his pro wrestling-simple villainous persona; he does it because it obviously looks cool. Oddly, one of the few American films directly influenced by Hard Boiled that nails its unembarrassed indulgence in excess & cheese is the 2007 action genre spoof Shoot ‘Em Up. Even as a loving parody, Shoot ‘Em Up feels more like a faithful carbon copy of Hong Kong excess than even Hard Target, which John Woo himself directed. Unfortunately, though, it fatally lacks Woo’s sincerity.

Shoot ‘Em Up telegraphs its nature as an ironic comedy by making the genre it’s spoofing clear in its title. It’s as if a slasher send-up were titled Horror Film or, you know, Scary Movie. Director Michael Davis was inspired to write the film after seeing Hard Boiled and being delighted/baffled by the sequence during the climactic shoot-out when Tequila teams up with a newborn baby to defeat the film’s legion of faceless baddies. Like Hard Boiled, Shoot ‘Em Up drops you into its violent, chaotic narrative with very little introductory context. Clive Owen stars as a drifter who gets caught in the crossfire of an opening gunfight, where his instinct to protect a pregnant woman in labor results in delivering the baby himself, mid-shootout. He separates the umbilical cord with a bullet from his pistol. The mother dies in the fray. The drifter finds himself carrying & the protecting the newly orphaned baby through many more over-the-top gunfights, but never any that reach the entertainment value of the film’s opening minutes. Shoot ‘Em Up’s rapid-fire, ZAZ-style spoof humor means that the jokes are abundant and any one bit doesn’t last for long. They’re also just rarely funny (which might be why the Scary Movie franchise came to mind). A rare gag like the baby being swapped out with a robo-decoy or the drifter leaving them on a filthy public bathroom floor to clean his gun on a changing table can be inspired. Mostly, though, the film is painfully unfunny & grotesquely macho, especially in its treatment of sex workers (practically the only women in sight) and in every single thing that Paul Giamatti says & does as the villain. By the time the film reaches for a second joke about how shooting a gun is like “blowing your load,” its difficult to care that one of its best gags was later blatantly ripped off in the deranged Nic Cage vehicle Drive Angry. Shoot ‘Em Up was built around a borrowed concept anyway and Drive Angry at least recognizes the value in playing the material straight/committing to the bit.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hard Boiled is unintentional in its humor. In the baby-themed shootout sequence that inspired Shoot ‘Em Up, Chow Yun-Fat delivers a great physical comedy performance, protecting the infant’s ears between gunshots & even singing it a hip-hop lullaby. The intentional humor of the sequence’s over-the-top excess is not in question. Where Hard Boiled is more successful is in its in-the-moment sincerity. Chow Yun-Fat is straight-faced & fully committed, playing the baby scene & the jazz clarinet as if they were totally typical to the action genre. Clive Owen’s drifter in Shoot ‘Em Up, by contrast, is a literal stand-in for Bugs Bunny, the king of winking at the audience. Before he even fires a gun, Owen is shown loudly gnawing on a carrot on a public bench, a habit he continues throughout the film to clue the audience in that it’s all a big joke. Unfortunately, the joke isn’t all that funny and only gets less impressive as it’s driven home with repetition. The entire film plays like the dick-shooting gag in Our RoboCop Remake, except that it runs for 90 minutes instead of 90 seconds. Its wacky! insincerity & ultimate lack of imagination (not to mention its boys-will-be-boys misogyny) are exhausting at that length. I admire Shoot ‘Em Up for capturing the spirit of the nonstop, over-the-top excess of 80s Hong Kong action cinema that most other American films failed to imitate in that movement’s wake. I just wish it had learned a lesson about the value of sincerity & playing it straight while admiring the humorous excess of films like Hard Boiled. John Woo’s comedic touches are twice as funny without trying half as hard to earn a laugh. Their unembarrassed embrace of cheese allows them to mix in with the over-the-top action seamlessly, creating a much more genuinely enjoyable product as a result.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its American follow-up, Hard Target.

-Brandon Ledet

John Woo Goes Hard, Goes American

There seem to be two distinct markers for the creative decline of the Hong Kong action cinema glory days that started in the mid-1980s: the handing over of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997 & the movement’s biggest directors transitioning into helming Hollywood blockbusters, also in the mid-1990s. Up until Alli presented Hard Boiled as a Movie of the Month selection I was only familiar with John Woo’s work after these two declines in quality. Titles like Face/Off & Mission: Impossible 2 have a kind of slickly-produced charm to them, but are nowhere near the quality of action spectacle offered in Woo’s Hong Kong heyday. The interesting thing about Hard Boiled, though, is that it finds John Woo on the cusp of both transitions. Hard Boiled may be the director’s most often-cited work from his Hong Kong glory years, but it arrived just before his transition into a Hollywood big shot, which would steer his career for the remainder of the 90s. This means it’s also his final contribution to Hong Kong cinema before the handover to mainland China after 50 years of British colonial rule, a transition many mark as a downfall for the region’s action cinema boom. His first foray into American action cinema kept the spirit of his Hong Kong years alive, though, so much so that I often get its title mixed up with Hard Boiled’s. Like so many Hong Kong directors gone mainstream, John Woo began his Hollywood career helming a Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle, this one titled Hard Target. Watching the film in retrospect, it’s initially difficult to see what Woo brings to the picture that you wouldn’t find with any nobody American director, but then the intense kineticism & absurdist tone of his Hong Kong work take over as it barrels towards a blissfully chaotic climax. This cusp before Woo’s creative decline, where he effectively goes hard, is possibly his greatest sweet spot.

Hard Target has more than an American sensibility & a recognizable action star going for it in the way of making Woo’s style palatable to me specifically; it’s also set in my home city. In the opening sequence a homeless man is being hunted with a crossbow in The French Quarter, eventually succumbing to the steel-tipped arrow on the banks of the Mississippi River. Some details in this sordid take on New Orleans are a little iffy, like everyone’s weirdly thick Southern accent (whereas local Y’at accents have a cadence all to their own) or that a man being hunted on Bourbon Street would ever be turned away for refuge, as those bars never really close in real life. By the time Wilford Brimley’s cartoon Cajun invades the screen, though, the discrepancies become highly entertaining instead of eyerollingly awkward. I also have to admit that the film’s overall estimation of New Orleans as a heartlessly hedonistic city that world allow rich white men to openly hunt the homeless in the streets for sport (in a modern retelling of “The Most Dangerous Game”) is harsh, but fair. The scenario that allows this absurd evil where it’s “the pleasure of the few to hunt the many” is a little oddly structured, as it’s a police strike that leaves the city temporarily lawless. You’d think corruption and collusion among the police force & the wealthy hegemony would drive the plot instead of this weird anti-union political bent, but there’s still some interesting class politics at work in the film all the same. In its most poignant moment, a hunted homeless man desperately pleads for help from Bourbon Street tourists, who coldly turn their backs on him as if he were begging for pocket change. Most of the film’s local flavor is used as a conveniently novel backdrop (majestically so in the case of a climactic shootout in a Mardi Gras parade float warehouse), one I’m always tickled to see onscreen. However, that tourist-begging sequence actually has a sting of truth to it as a jab to New Orleans’s uglier side as a hedonistic playground for tourists that doesn’t give a shit about its own ailing population.

Of course, for most American audiences (since, mathematically speaking, most Americans have never lived in New Orleans), the main window into Woo’s appeal offered in Hard Target was his handle on the action. Jean-Claude Van Damme is meant to hold our hand through this cultural exchange as our action hero, although Woo makes him just as (charmingly) goofy as Chow Yun-Fat’s jazz clarinet enthusiast appears to be in Hard Boiled. Contextualizing his Belgian accent as a result of being a Cajun drifter, JCVD stars as the hilariously named Chance Boudreaux. A former medaled Marine who’s now desperately strapped for cash, Chance is introduced as a bizarre set of images: a single earring, a pronounced mullet, a slurped-up bowl of gumbo, etc. Just as cheesy jazz bar noodling follows around Tequila in Hard Boiled, Chance is scored with consistently cheesy blues guitar-riffing at every appearance. Early in the film, you get the sense that Woo’s directorial style has been significantly damaged in its exportation to America. It seems as if only his corniest stylistic impulses had made the jump, with none of the over-the-top action spectacle that contrasted them. Once the film leaves the city limits to meet Wilford Brimley’s Cajun caricature in the swamp, Woo’s personal touch becomes much clearer. Stunts, explosions, gunfire, motorcycles, and hard asses biting heads off snakes fill the screen in a nonstop, absurd cacophony strung together from a mind-bogglingly long parade of individual camera setups. What easily could have been a forgettable JCVD cheapie with a vague point to make about class politics and our casual disregard for the homeless transforms into a beautiful, explosive indulgence in over-the-top hyperviolence. The difference between John Woo and his American counterparts was that he went all in on action spectacle, where others would pull back & leave room for the audience to breathe. The problem is that American movie studios were much less accommodating to that violent fervor than the financiers that he was used to working with in Hong Kong.

As you might suspect, the reason Woo’s touch for over-the-top spectacle doesn’t initially come through in Hard Target is that American movie studio tinkering was holding him back. Universal Pictures executives had zero confidence in Woo (an unease they pinned entirely on a language barrier) despite his reputation for delivering all-time classic action vehicles like Hard Boiled. It took recognizable, bankable names like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sam Raimi (who was hired to hang around on set “on standby” to take over direction in case Woo “couldn’t handle” the production) to vouch for his genius for the studio to give him any creative control. Beyond that, 1990s MPAA censorship was much stricter on violence than its Hong Kong equivalent, so Woo had to make extensive cuts to Hard Target’s onscreen bloodshed to secure even an R rating. He smartly got around this hurdle by saving most of the absurd ultraviolence for the film’s Mardi Gras warehouse climax, making it count where he could. Still, you can feel early in the film how the softer edges on the violence (along with the shortened 90 min runtime, which leaves little room for elaborate action set pieces) stifled what made a John Woo film special in the first place. Hard Target is a deliciously silly action vehicle for JCVD’s brand of macho violence, maybe even one of his best, but it isn’t nearly as overwhelming in its creative heights as Hard Boiled, the Woo film that directly preceded it. As a pair, the two Hard films demonstrate exactly how Woo’s sensibilities were dulled & distorted in his transition to the American studio system, leaving the glory days of Hong Kong’s action cinema heights firmly in his rearview. The comparison is perhaps unfair to Hard Target, which eventually excels in an American action cinema context once it warms up, but it does help illustrate what was so spectacular about Hong Kong action’s heyday and what was lost in its slow 1990s fadeout, thanks both to American influence and to the culture of Hong Kong itself fading away.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet