Their fourth film together, Once a Thief (1991) is a minor work compared to their previous films, and it certainly lacks the high-octane action of Hard Boiled (1992), but it would be churlish to deny its importance. Chow had capitalised on his success between Woo outings with a series of highly acclaimed thrillers. Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) is famous as the inspiration for Reservoir Dogs (1992), and Chow excelled in the role that Harvey Keitel would later assume in Tarantino’s version. Tiger on the Beat (1989) was a goofy comedy caper, and God of Gamblers (1990) saw him effectively play both the suave card-sharp and idiot savant.
If Chow’s persona in the west at the time was as an oriental Alain Delon, then Once a Thief can be seen as his return to his days of romantic comedy. A quirky tale of two art thief brothers (Leslie Cheung returns to play the younger half), who fall for the same girl (Cherie Cheung, the equivalent of Julia Roberts in her day) and plot revenge against their estranged father, much of the film is undeniably tongue-in-cheek. The action scenes witness C-4 explosive being kicked around like footballs. Chow spends much of the last third of the film in a wheelchair, which leads to some seated ballroom breakdancing, and the whole affair ends on a note of Hong Kong style farce. The pleasure is seeing Chow slip into a more comfortable Cary Grant style of performance after the intensity of his previous roles. The film also highlights Woo’s passion for the US, a country soon to become his home from home from a Hong Kong facing imminent political upheaval.
Hard Boiled currently stands as their last venture together, and is perhaps their their purest partnership. Originally Woo intended to pair his two disparate cops off against a serial killer who was putting glass in baby food, but changed his mind after personal fears of inspiring copycat acts. The plot here is a more familiar tale of Investigator Tequila (Chow) and Leung’s undercover man crossing paths and facing off when both pursue the gunrunners who are using a hospital as a front. The finale mirrors Woo’s concerns about HK’s future and the risk his thrillers have on impressionable minds – Chow is left holding dozens of newborn babies as the hospital detonates around him. It is a surreal, anarchic set piece delivered in Woo’s trademark style. Chow clearly is invigorated by playing such a straightforward knight in shining armour, and touchingly, the distinctly HK settings of dockyards and restaurants often make Hard Boiled seem like a love letter to the homeland the pair were about to leave behind.
So where has the Hong Kong handover and their move to America left them? Woo has since directed some of his best work. Face/Off (1997) sees two Hollywood A-listers, John Travolta and Nic Cage, aping each other’s characteristic traits, so that a fantastical shoot-’em-up becomes a critique of how stars are defined and trapped by their roles. In fact, it was a trick Woo had already played in a previous film: The Killer compared and contrasted the acting methods of Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee, and contained a similar story arc where two characters discover their inherent similarities.
Identity swapping was also a motif of Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), yet Woo found his hands tied by the control of his producer-star (Tom Cruise) and produced his blandest, most impersonal work. Sadly it is also probably his most widely seen film. Whereas his other pictures are playful in their treatment of the leads, Woo had little room to work with Cruise’s iconic public image. Woo’s current position in Hollywood is the rare one of a master for hire. His urge to make non-action genre films like the pious war film Windtalkers (2002) and his abandoned comedy project, King’s Ransom, expose a director who is tired of rehashing his former glories – and yet his current film, Paycheck (2004) looks set to be exactly that.
Chow Yun-Fat has fared little better. His move to Hollywood came a few years later due to contractual obligations in Hong Kong. He was rumoured to have his English language debut in a Woo-directed, Tarantino-scripted thriller, but this eventually became The Replacement Killers (1997) with no sign of Quentin and little artistic input from Woo.
With a firmer grasp of English, a script that bordered on Shakespearean tragedy, and an established director in James Foley, The Corruptor (1998), Chow’s second US thriller, was an underrated gem. The influence of Woo was still obvious, but a tense, intelligent policier about illegal immigration and police dishonesty saw Chow excel as a father figure to Mark Wahlberg’s idealistic but crooked cop. A rather throwaway scene where Chow gives his new partner some fruit harked back to one of A Better Tomorrow II’s more tender moments, and confesses a certain reverence to the foreign star’s international standing. It is also fascinating that both films concerned themselves with the illegal trafficking of the star’s countrymen during this period of political upheaval in Hong Kong.
Anna and the King (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) established a more mature persona. Despite the over earnest approach of both films, Chow finally had the chance to show Western audiences his ability to play the dramatic leading man. Chow deliberately turned down the Morpheus role in The Matrix (1999, 2003) movies to avoid being pigeon-holed, and a decision that could have been career suicide, considering the Matrix series’ box office success, may still pay off after the last two films’ critical mauling. Then again, the less said about Bulletproof Monk (2003), the better.
So will Woo return to his partnership with Chow Yun Fat? Much has been made of the various scripts knocking around Hollywood concerning Chinese involvement in the building of the US railways. The Line and Men of Destiny have been linked with both Woo and Chow, and a historical actioner that resurrects Woo’s concerns with masculine honour, the American effect on his own society, and the themes of spiritual and economic corruption could see Chow in a more taxing role than those he has received since his move to Hollywood.
It would be more interesting, perhaps, to see where Woo and Chow’s old-school heroics stand in Hong Kong since the colony was handed back to Communist China. Surely the country’s current identity crisis between China and its former status as a British protectorate would be a interesting stomping ground for a hero torn between honour and professionalism, ambition and loyalty? The economic upheavals that have followed surely need a chivalric icon – and who could be more suitable than Hong Kong’s own modern day knight?