Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo, Christopher Heard

Lone Eagle, 2000, 269 pages, US$15.95 tpb, ISBN 1-58065-021-X

Even though the cumulative effect of some of his movies is often disappointing (WINDTALKERS, anyone?), I really do like John Woo’s work as a director. His eye for action choreography is unmatched, and even when he’s hampered by practical constraints, his visual style stands tall above the work of most of his colleagues. It’s no accident if I happen to consider films like HARD-BOILED and FACE/OFF to be minor classics.

So, obviously, a book like Ten Thousand Bullets would be naturally interesting. While I know a fair bit about Woo’s work since the late eighties, the earlier part of his life isn’t commonly discussed in the media, and it seemed to me that this biography could shed some light on that part of his life. Fortunately, it delivers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much more.

Ten Thousand Bullets is, logically enough, arranged in chronological order. Starting at his birth in 1946 and ending in pre-production for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 in 1999, this biography details most of the thirty-odd films of Woo’s career, with a particular attention to the eight last action films that followed his 1987 breakthrough A BETTER TOMORROW. More information is offered as the book goes along, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.

I noticed that Ten Thousand Bullets was written by Christopher Heard only after I had bought the book. I don’t think that this would have influenced my decision had I known beforehand, but the name still rang alarm bells: Heard is the author of Dreaming Aloud, a biography about James Cameron that I’d read some time ago. Though I did like the book, I was concerned, at the time, about the derivative nature of Heard’s work, a book that read as if it had been cribbed from a few magazine articles, along with multi-page summaries of Cameron’s films. Would it be the same thing with Ten Thousand Bullets?

Well, not quite as bad, but pretty much, yes. On a technical level, Ten Thousand Bullets is workmanlike, presenting basic information in a suitably accessible style without panache or great insight. If you want a quick biographical sketch of Woo’s life, this is the book for you, a highlight reel of his career along with very basic biographical information. As a work discussing Woo’s motifs, motivations and work methods, though, it’s a recipe for disappointment. While material like Woo’s Catholicism is briefly mentioned, it’s not referenced in the index nor discussed in any meaningful length.

True, Ten Thousand Bullets seems to rely on more sources than Dreaming Aloud (wow, count’em: six books and seven articles), but once again, Heard seems to be writing from second-hand sources. Woo’s life is narrated, but we seldom get a glimpse into the reasons why it’s happening this way. Coverage of his work seems to increase in proportion to the number of material published in the United States. Save from an interview with Chow Yun-Fat (heavily featured as “Appendix A”, even though the link with Woo isn’t integral), there isn’t much of a sense that Heard wrote much more than a collage of previously-published works, minor interviews and personal impressions. As such, it’s a pretty good read, but it may be more appropriate to beginners and casual Woo fans rather than his aficionados. There remains a place on the marketplace for a book delving deeper in Woo’ life and passions. For the rest, well, there are plenty of web sites.

This being said, I’m still not too disappointed by the book: It’s a fast read, it does a basic job at describing the life and work of John Woo and it brings together information from many sources in one convenient package that fits comfortably on my reference shelf. It’s a bit of a bother that it stops short of Woo’s biggest hit MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2, but -hey- that’s the problem with paper books. On the other hand, maybe it’s a relief that Heard’s breathless narrative stopped short of his latest two American films. Seeing how he bends himself out of shape trying to compliment HARD TARGET, it would have been embarrassing to see him try to praise WINDTALKERS on anything but a purely visual level…

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