His films are notable for cascading glass, falling bodies and enough bullets to touch off a war. But John Woo, Hong Kong’s most celebrated filmmaker, whose movies are almost operatic in their excess, insisted that the flamboyant violence stamping his work resembles a ballet, almost ethereal, even otherworldly.
“It’s like dancing,” the 51-year-old director remarked the other day as he nervously awaited the opening of “Face/Off,” his most ambitious American film, starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, which opened No. 1 at the box office this weekend. “My actors are amusing and exciting. I grew up on films like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’ That’s what I want! It’s like a cartoon.”
And the anarchic violence in his films? The BBC once called Woo “the Mozart of mayhem.” “Violence in real life is horrid, frightening,” Woo said. “The news on television is scary, not movies. Movies are fake, not real. People know the movies are not real.”
“Face/Off,” a film released by Paramount, which received the best reviews of Woo’s career, is a weird saga involving a law enforcement officer, played by Travolta, who undergoes radical surgery to “borrow” the face of Cage, a psychopath bent on destroying Los Angeles. Travolta wants to find the site of a poison gas bomb. Of course, things go awry. Cage awakens from a coma with the face of Travolta. The film has Woo’s trademarks: a dizzy plot, hypercharged editing, blunt religious symbolism, offbeat humor and unimaginably creepy villains. Subtlety is not Woo’s strong point.
In its opening as No. 1 this weekend, the film grossed $22.7 million, according to the Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks ticket sales. It outflanked Disney’s “Hercules” as well as “Batman and Robin,” which was No. 3 at the box office and dropped off so sharply in its second week that it looms as a major disappointment.
Referring to the movie, Woo said the duality of good and evil is central to the film and to his work. “It’s my usual theme, always good and evil mirroring each other,” he said, seated in an office near the 20th Century Fox studios in West Los Angeles, where he is starting work on a new film. “I like imperfect characters. Perfect heroes bore me.”
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