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Thursday, May 21, 2015

May 21, 2015: BlockbusterStudying II: Broken Arrow and Face/Off

[A couple years ago, I spent a fun week AmericanStudying summer blockbusters—this year, it’s time for the sequel! Add your thoughts, on these or other blockbusters, for a weekend post that’s sure to set box office records!]
On a mixed merger of Hong Kong and American films, and what we should remember regardless.
With 1996’s Broken Arrow (released in February, but a summer blockbuster through and through) and 1997’s Face/Off, legendary Hong Kong action filmmaker John Woo made his Hollywood film debuts. In so doing, he also introduced the world (although I don’t think we quite recognized it at the time) to a new style of performance, now affectionately known as mega-acting: the style has come to be associated most closely with Nicolas Cage, who certainly has his moments of mega-acting in Face/Off; but in these two films was employed most consistently by John Travolta, who has likewise continued to mega-act in many, many many, action films in the years since. Indeed, given the central role that both Cage and Travolta have played in American action films over the decades since these two movies, it’s fair to say that hiring and using them in this way might be the most significant legacy of Woo’s American action debuts.
When it comes to assessing the broader legacies of Woo’s transition to Hollywood filmmaking, however, the results seem (to put it kindly) more mixed. To be clear, Woo didn’t and would never need Hollywood success to be regarded as one of the greats of late 20th and early 21st century film: by the time he came to Hollywood he had already made 25 films, across a number of periods and genres, including a handful (such as A Better Tomorrow [1986], The Killer [1989], and Hard Boiled [1992]) that are considered among the greatest Hong Kong and action films of all time. Yet it’s equally undeniable that his Hollywood action efforts, including the aforementioned pair as well as Mission: Impossible II (2000) and Paycheck (2003), were neither as innovative nor as successful as those Hong Kong films had been. And by 2009, Woo had decided to leave Hollywood and return to Hong Kong cinema.
If we focused our AmericanStudying of Woo on these less successful Hollywood films, though, we’d be missing out on a couple significant points. For one thing, in this globalized, transnational 21st century moment, American audiences can engage and have engaged with Woo’s Hong Kong films just as easily and fully as they could his Hollywood ones; indeed, by most accounts all current action filmmaking, American and otherwise, has been influenced by Woo’s career, an argument for transnational identity and community if ever there were one. And for another, Woo’s Hollywood career included not only all those action efforts, but also Windtalkers (2002), a World War II action drama about the vital role played by Navajo codebreakers in the Allied war efforts. Perhaps because Windtalkers features Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater, stars of Woo’s earliest Hollywood films, it has generally been lumped in with the rest of his American filmography—but while it has its own flaws, it also represents the only major feature film to date to tell this amazing and crucial American story. But to my mind, it’s the one summer blockbuster through which Woo’s American efforts should most fully be remembered, and another important part of his career and legacy.
Last blockbuster post tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other summer blockbusters you’d analyze?

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