Here’s every movie from director-actor team John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, ranked worst to best. Every so often, an actor and director will just click and want to work together again and again. Notable examples include Scorsese and De Niro, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell or Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. These simpatico creative relationships often result in these collaborators drawing their best work out from one another. That said, sometimes – like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – these partnerships can quickly turn stale.
Neither John Woo – who often uses doves in his movies – nor Chow Yun-fat’s careers were in great places when they first came together on A Better Tomorrow. Woo had helmed a bunch of martial arts movies and comedies like Hand of Death – featuring a young Jackie Chan – while Chow was considered box-office poison. The shock success of A Better Tomorrow – thanks to Woo’s stylish, heartfelt direction and Chow’s iconic turn – made them both stars, and they collaborated many times in the years that followed.
They haven’t worked together in over 30 years, but the impact they left on cinema can still be felt, from The Matrix to John Wick. Here’s every John Woo and Chow Yun-fat movie ranked.
5. Once A Thief (1991)
By the time Once A Thief arrived, Woo and Chow – whose Pirates Of The Caribbean 3 role was cut in China – were already being courted by Hollywood. The film itself is a defiantly bizarre mix of romance, comedy, heist film and “heroic bloodshed” action, but its utter lack of focus is a big problem. It can be an irritatingly goofy comedy one moment and deathly serious action thriller the next. Chow and co-stars Cherie Chung and Leslie Cheung share great chemistry as a trio of art thieves in a love triangle, but it’s the weakest Woo/Chow collaboration. That said, the film was shot and completed in ten weeks, which is incredible in itself.
4. A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
A Better Tomorrow didn’t exactly end on a note that teased a sequel, especially with the death of a major character. Regardless, it was such a landmark that A Better Tomorrow II was rushed into production. Woo – who almost made a solo Kato movie – has since disowned the sequel as it was taken out of his hands and like Once A Thief suffers from pacing and tonal issues. Despite this, it’s held together by a great cast – including Chow at his hammiest – and has some standout action, especially the finale. A follow-up didn’t need to happen, but while it lacks the grit of the original, it’s still good fun.
3. A Better Tomorrow (1986)
The first John Woo/Chow Yun-fat movie is a bleak, emotional gangster drama. This is the movie where Woo’s stylistic obsessions and themes – two-fisted gunplay, the bonds of friendship, catholic symbolism, etc – come into focus. A Better Tomorrow lacks the technical refinement of his later movies, but the heart-on-the-sleeve melodrama and Woo’s – whose next movie has an impossible challenge – slo-mo shootouts are there to see. Chow has arguably never been better as disgraced gangster Mark either and was a star from the moment he lit his cigarette with a forged $100 bill.
2. Hard Boiled (1992)
Hard Boiled might just be the best pure action movie ever made – but it’s just short of being the best John Woo/Chow Yun-fat film. The film follows Chow’s obsessed cop teaming with Tony Leung’s undercover detective to take down an arms dealer, and it marked Woo’s departure – for a time – from Hong Kong cinema. Hard Boiled’s story is slight, but the cast is impeccable while the action is the best of Woo’s career, from the opening tea house shootout to the still impressive single-take hospital gun battle. For action fans, Hard Boiled is a sacred text.
1. The Killer (1989)
The best John Woo – who took over Mission: Impossible 2 from Oliver Stone – and Chow Yun-fat collaboration remains The Killer, which reinvented screen action while being an emotional thriller in its own right. Seeking redemption for accidentally blinding a singer during a hit, Chow’s assassin takes on a major job before being betrayed by his bosses. Danny Lee’s cop chases him, with the two supposed foes forming a friendship as the story progresses, since – like Heat – they find themselves alike. The Killer has great – if sometimes overly sincere and cheesy – drama powering the action. Not that it slouches in that department either, with The Killer’s setpieces and style being relentlessly ripped off in Hollywood following its release. Woo is currently remaking the movie for Peacock, which will have a tall order topping the original.