While Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to American audiences, one of his contemporary idols -- Hong Kong noir director John Woo -- is far less known on these shores. Woo's unfortunate decision to team up with Brussels muscleman Jean-Claude Van Damme for the director's big shot at crossover success, 1993's soft-headed Hard Target, certainly didn't help matters any. Hong Kong mini film festivals featuring Woo's work were all the rage in New York City and Los Angeles two years ago; now Miami gets to see what all the fuss was about with the arrival at Miami Beach's Alliance Theater of Full Throttle: Six Films from Hong Kong. Better late than never.
Woo's seminal gangster flick, 1986's A Better Tomorrow, fires off the six-shooter's first salvo with a definitive bang. Patterned after American gangster films of the Thirties (a counterfeiter whose younger brother is a cop tries to go straight after rivals bump off his father; sibling rivalry and revenge complicate matters), Tomorrow set a record for box-office receipts at the time of its release and made international sensations out of writer-director Woo, producer Tsui Hark, and then-supporting player Chow Yun-Fat.
While the film is uneven and marked by hysterically inept grammar and syntax in its subtitles ("He can't take this pressure, so do I!" "They'll not good . . ." "Don't angry!" "He've the gut to change."), there is no mistaking Woo's talent, or the star power of Chow Yun-Fat, who exudes the charisma of a young Cagney. Bullets fly, blood splatters, bones break, windows shatter, and in the end a hardened criminal and his baby brother avenge their father's murder. Fear of going over the top clearly does not constrain John Woo.
Woo contributes two other entries to "Full Throttle": 1990's grim Bullet in the Head follows a path of death and betrayal as three young pals leave Hong Kong in 1967 to make their fortune as smugglers in Vietnam, only to watch their dreams blow up in their faces; 1991's faux-Hitchcock caper flick Once a Thief balances Woo's command of action sequences with the director's surprisingly deft comedic touch.
As central as John Woo is to "Full Throttle," he is not the only attraction. Yuen Kwai's The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk kicks and punches from one elaborate martial-arts showdown to another, culminating in a battle between the film's hero and his potential mother-in-law. They fight while balanced on the heads and shoulders of their supporters; the first one to touch the ground loses. Needless to say, the aerial acrobatics are eye-popping. Meanwhile the director's A Chinese Ghost Story III eschews chop-socky action for campy fantasy A something about a dreaded tree demon awakening in a particularly ornery mood after 100 years of sleep. Finally, Green Snake offers a peek at the directorial talents of A Better Tomorrow producer Tsui Hark.
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Full Throttle: Six Films from Hong Kong.
Playing at the Alliance Theater, 927 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach from December 29 through January 11. Call 531-8504 for further information.