DON'T LET ALL THE violence in his films fool you, John Woo has always been a hippy at heart. The doves, he says, are a dead giveaway. He used them in the shootout scenes in 1989's The Killer, the final gun battle in the 1997 hit Face/Off. And they're back again in his latest production, the Tom Cruise box-office smash, Mission: Impossible 2. In the climactic scenes, Cruise (as our hero Ethan Hunt) seeks out the bad guys in their underground lair. When Cruise blows down a door, a snow-white dove flies through the fire. When the baddies are hunting him down, Cruise takes shelter in a storeroom and the dove appears again, perched next to him like some guardian angel. 'I'm a Christian,' explains the 54-year-old Woo, at The Peninsula this week to promote the film. 'And when I was in high school I used to draw posters for the church every Sunday. Every weekend there was a different topic. I liked to use the dove as a theme [in those pictures] because the dove means so many different things. The dove represents purity, love, kindness, friendship, and it's very spiritual. So it has many different meanings. 'In The Killer, I used the doves to show that although the characters are different - they walk different paths - inside their hearts they are similar. Inside their hearts, they are pure. So whenever they got shot, killed, I would cut to the dove flying over the candle, which means their souls are being saved and also to show the purity of their hearts. 'In M:i-2 I also used the dove. I came up with the idea on the set. Tom Cruise's character is charming, innocent and, like the other characters, he had hopes, dreams, passion about life, he had love. So the little dove with Tom works together as his friend. When the white dove flies through the burning door, it becomes the messenger - it's sending a message to the evil guys [that Cruise is here]. And when he [Cruise] is hiding, the dove makes a noise and the bad guy comes so Tom can kick him. So it is like his friend as well. In every movie, I like to give a little religious touch,' Woo says. 'Also, I was a hippy in the 70s so the dove has the meaning of love and peace.' But it was Woo's touch with high-octane and high-body count action scenes in films such as Face/Off that attracted Cruise's attention when he was scouting around for a director for M:i-2. And Woo has worked his wonders there as well with the film pulling more than US$100 million (HK$778 million) at the US box office after eight days. Cruise - also in town to promote the film - said before he had met Woo, he had admired him on a professional level as a 'brilliant film-maker'. After shooting, 'respect deepened on a human level', Cruise said. 'He has great humanity as a person, incredible patience and compassion for people that translates to the screen,' Cruise said. 'He takes the action genre to another level, creating heartfelt imagery.' The M:i-2 connection first started 2.5 years ago when Cruise was still working on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. 'I was making a Nike [World Cup] commercial in Brazil and he called me to set up a meeting in London,' Woo says. 'So he offered this project to me and I was pretty surprised. I'd never dreamed of making a spy movie. And I've never wanted to make a sequel. But Tom said it would be a different movie, there was no need to connect it with the first one. 'He gave me a lot of freedom because what he wanted was to make every episode in a different style, and from a different director. He understands that my kind of movies are pretty emotional and character-driven. 'So I told him I would like to see this movie a little more human and have a little more romance and he totally agreed with that.' Enter the character Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) who wins over Hunt and leads him to do some soul-searching. 'Tom got together with the writer [Robert Towne] and they came up with the love-triangle story,' says Woo. 'This excited me as I had always wanted to create a strong female character and I think we've got that.' And while working with Cruise may seem an imposing prospect for many, Woo was not concerned. 'He was very demanding because this film is his baby - very demanding on everything. So, for myself, I wanted to maintain my own style. But we wanted the same things, so we had no problems. Actually I came to see him as a great film-maker rather than a superstar. 'Tom is extremely easy to work with. I am so amazed by his knowledge about film-making and his understanding of it. He respects me a lot, so we respect each other and we worked together as friends. He had no attitude [on the set] and no ego. 'I have my own vision. But we wanted to keep the same spirit from the original [film]: the concept, the teamwork, the twists. And we wanted to see a little more character, a little more humanity, and more action.' As the trailer presently screening in Hong Kong shows, some of that action is simply breathtaking. It includes one scene where Cruise - hanging onto a rock some 450 metres from the ground - leaps unaided to another ledge at full stretch, risking the fall below. Amazing stuff. And it had the director - not the actor - trembling with fear. 'Yes, I am scared of heights,' admits Woo with a laugh. 'Maybe I'm getting older and it gets worse. Of course I used to live in an apartment building [in Hong Kong] but never too high. But now I am just getting more scared. So for the scenes with the rock climbing, I was a lot more worried than Tom Cruise. 'I really didn't want him to do all the stunts. It was too risky. But Tom is very clever and very clear about what he's doing. He loves challenges and doing things he has never done before.' Moving to Hollywood after the success of Hard-Boiled in 1992 was a dream come true for Woo. But he sees the day - as he grows older - when he can lift his foot off the action accelerator and ease into films with a more human touch. 'I always hope the audience gets some message or feeling from my films. Of course, I want to make an entertaining movie, but I would like them to think as well. And since I have the great opportunity to work in Hollywood, I also get the chance to make my own choices,' he says. 'And now I am determined to do something different, something more meaningful, with more depth.' His next project - Wind Talkers - is exactly that. Set in Hawaii in World War II, and starring Nicolas Cage, it revolves around the relationship between the US military and the Native Americans who used their native languages as a code to fool the Japanese. 'It's about friendship, human tragedy and understanding,' says Woo. 'It's a war movie but the real war is not about Japanese, it's not about the enemy, it's about a war between people.' And although Woo spends most of his time in the US, courted by Hollywood and the film world's brightest stars, it is refreshing to see that he is still a Hong Kong boy at heart. 'I still have high hopes for Hong Kong movies because they still get a lot of attention. People still love them and I think they have great potential,' he says. 'I have always believed in the Hong Kong people's spirit. They work hard, always trying something new, and always know how to survive. 'I would like to make a film again in Chinese because I love my country, I love my culture. It would have to be a period film, something historical, something that can show the true spirit of our culture and our people. But for the moment I have so many things to do, and so much to learn. I just want to keep learning from different cultures.' Woo is a man of many surprises and, like one of his action heroes, he had one shot left in his gun. 'Another dream I have is to make a musical. I wish I could make a film like West Side Story . . . it's my favourite.'