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Chinese language cinema

John Woo’s The Killer, reloaded: four reasons to get excited about Hollywood remake, with Lupita Nyong’o in talks to star

Hong Kong director is set to revisit his ‘bullet ballet’ masterpiece from 1989, but with an actress in the lead role that went to Chow Yun-fat in the original film. Here’s why we think it’ll work

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 12:30pm

Did anyone see this coming? While there had been whispers about an American remake of The Killer for several years by now, it was never quite conceivable that Hong Kong director John Woo could revisit one of his most beloved “heroic bloodshed” masterpieces without looking like a sell-out.

But it looks as if the legendary action filmmaker, who turned 72 this week, has found the key to unlock the puzzle.

Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo on the making of Manhunt, Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, and budget versus action movies

As reported by various trade papers, Woo is teaming up with Universal Pictures to produce an American version of his classic crime thriller from 1989. The Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o is in negotiations to play the titular assassin – portrayed indelibly in the original by Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat – in the remake, which will again be directed by Woo.

Here are four reasons film lovers should get excited by this somewhat surprising project.

1. He may be over 70, but Woo has only just developed an appetite for portraying female assassins

From his early “gun-fu” classics such as Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow to his Hollywood outings like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II, Woo’s cinema has long been about heroic men who put their lives on the line for the right cause and, often more importantly, loyalty to their fellow men.

That dynamic found a new twist when the Korean actress Ha Ji-won and Woo’s daughter, Angeles Woo Feixia, appeared as a pair of female assassins in last year’s Manhunt. Remarkably, in Woo’s decades of churning out “bullet ballet” films, this was the first in which killers were played by women.

“Nowadays the image that is given of women is much stronger,” Ha told the Post in an interview last year. “It might be the reason why John Woo chose a female killer.”

Manhunt star Ha Ji-won first to play a female killer in a John Woo film

It’s probably a common view among Manhunt’s audiences that the two female assassins in that film, with their uber-cool action sequences and poignant sense of loyalty to each other, provided a refreshing counterpoint to the love-hate relationship between the two male leads, played by Zhang Hanyu and Masaharu Fukuyama.

With his upcoming remake of The Killer, Woo will finally have the chance to dedicate a full story to a female protagonist – literally with all guns blazing.

2. Nyong’o is an A-list star-in-the-making, and The Killer would come at just the right time

It might seem sacrilegious to question an Oscar winner’s credentials, but there was a time when nobody knew for sure if Kenyan-Mexican actress Nyong’o could translate her best supporting actress win for the 2013 slavery drama 12 Years a Slave into mainstream success.

Fast-forward four years, and we’re looking at a Hollywood regular who has featured – behind performance-capture work – in two Star Wars films ( The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi ), and starred in the landmark film of black cinema, Marvel’s Black Panther , all mammoth hits at the international box office.

Black Panther opens as most successful film with primarily non-white cast of all time

When an actress on the cusp of superstardom collaborates with a filmmaker renowned for shaping action heroes, magic tends to happen. If Nyong’o does take the role of an assassin out to finish one last hit, she has every chance of making a statement and surpassing what Jennifer Lawrence (with Red Sparrow ) and Charlize Theron (with Atomic Blonde ) did recently in those action thrillers.

3. Woo has done well in China, but could use a global hit to remind the world of his brilliance

In hindsight, it was probably right for Woo to leave Hollywood behind in the early 2000s and return to making films in China.

With the freedom that his stature ensured on home soil, he has dabbled in several genres with varying degrees of success: the period epic Red Cliff was exhilarating; disaster melodrama The Crossing stank; and contemporary thriller Manhunt divided critics.

Yet for a global audience which used to idolising Woo as a master of action cinema, these China-oriented productions have barely been made available in their original form: it still pains me to think that Red Cliff, an epic two-part reconstruction of China’s Three Kingdoms history, was released in a heavily cut form in some overseas markets.

Film review: Manhunt – Zhang Hanyu, Masaharu Fukuyama in John Woo’s ridiculous but fun bullet ballet

While Woo premiered Manhunt out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, there is a feeling among his long-time followers that here is a major filmmaker who deserves a lot more fanfare than he is currently getting.

By remaking one of his best known works for a new audience, and casting one of the hottest rising stars in Hollywood, Woo has given himself a major platform to remind the world of what he is great at. (And even if the new Killer sucks, excuse us, at least people everywhere will be talking about Woo.)

4. There are haters galore for all-female movie reboots, and The Killer could change the equation

Let us first concede that remaking The Killer with a female lead is an extraordinarily brave decision. You only need to look at director Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which was more or less thrown under the bus by hordes of online haters who hadn’t even seen the film, to know that it’s a tricky endeavour.

Director Paul Feig ‘would love to prove the haters wrong’ about all-female Ghostbusters reboot

To recap, the displeasure with which Feig’s remake of the 1984 original was greeted did not end with mere words – or even a staggering one million thumbs-down votes on the film’s YouTube trailer. Apart from getting misogynistic insults on Twitter, the film’s only African-American lead, Leslie Jones, also had her website hacked and nude photos and personal information released in public.

Despite all that, the current vocal support for women – witness the #MeToo movement – serves as a counter to the entertainment industry’s sexism. And don’t forget, in a month’s time we’ll be seeing the release of Ocean’s 8, an all-female reboot of the Ocean’s franchise starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway and more.

We have arrived at a time when Hollywood studios are making bold decisions to allow more women to front their biggest films. If Woo’s new take on The Killer can contribute to that development – and the director’s own involvement is significant in any debate on creative integrity – then we’re looking at a remake that will be no less a cultural milestone then the very different, and very influential, original.

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