“You saved the day there, you little piss-pot.” —Chow Yun-Fat, Hard Boiled
As a wave of Hong Kong action films, led by John Woo’s 1989 breakthrough The Killer, began making their way across the Pacific, they tended to arrive first as urban myth and only later as actual movies. (Though the difference between legend and movie was often surprisingly negligible.) After the blood-squib ballet of The Killer, the appetite for all things Woo was pretty high in cult circles, and as bootlegs and screenings of the director’s 1992 action extravaganza Hard Boiled began to surface, so did the breathless descriptions of its contents. I distinctly recall one such report coming back to me after a screening in New York: “Now get this,” a friend told me. “There’s this insane gun battle at a hospital, like 40 minutes long. Explosions are going off everywhere. The place is on fire. Chow Yun-Fat wraps up the last baby in the nursery, tucks it under his arm, yanks the electrical wire down from the ceiling, and uses it to leap off the second floor to safety. But that’s not all! His pant leg catches on fire and the baby pisses on it and puts it out. How crazy is that?!”
Pretty crazy. And yet, does it seem as crazy now as it did 18 years ago? The legacy of John Woo is a complicated one, because it’s so bound up in the evolution of the Hollywood action movie, which owes much to his influence, but has co-opted and eclipsed him, too. The glorious excess of Woo’s Hong Kong films, with their unimpeachable deadpan cool and ornately choreographed violence—borrowed in themselves from Jean-Pierre Melville and Sam Peckinpah, respectively—have now simply become the accepted language of action movies. In fact, the concept of a baby figuring into an action sequence was recently extended in the opening of Shoot ’Em Up, and the advent of CGI effects have brought a plasticity to Woo-flavored dreck from Wanted to Max Payne to whatever piece of junk Luc Besson is producing this week. And that’s to say nothing of Woo himself, who enjoyed a sliver of success in Hollywood with Face/Off (and the vastly underrated Hard Target), but was mostly chewed up and spit out, and has since retreated to China for the myth-making historical action epic Red Cliff.
There’s no escaping the cruel reality that Woo, having left his mark on the next generation of action directors, was essentially killed by his own children, who rendered the miracles of his early work commonplace. So where does that leave Hard Boiled, perhaps his most celebrated effort, in the cult-movie pantheon now that it seems more earthbound, relatively speaking? Though it’s doubtful that anyone would describe it as breathlessly as they did nearly two decades ago, the film has proved surprisingly durable over time, owing to the particularities of Woo’s style and obsessions, the iconic turns by Chow and Tony Leung, the old-fashioned stunts and pyrotechnics, and the sheer force of its overcranked imagination. It may no longer surprise, but it still thrills.
The opening shots set the tone: A glass of liquor illuminated in stage light, slammed down against the bar to create a tequila slammer, then raised to the lips of Chow Yun-Fat’s Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, who drinks and exhales cigarette smoke in one fluid motion, perfectly catching the light, before settling in to play a jazz solo on his clarinet. Translation: This is the coolest guy alive. Though Woo does advance more significant themes about honor, redemption, and self-sacrifice later, Hard Boiled is foremost about style for its own sake, driven by Woo’s impulse to keep topping himself. Thus, the first action setpiece isn’t some ordinary shootout between cops and gun-smugglers, but a showdown in a teahouse filled with birdcages, so when the bullets start flying, the feathers follow. There are many great things to savor about this sequence—the interplay between two-fisted handguns and blankets of machine-gun fire, the mini-explosions of debris that scatter with each bullet, the toothpick that never leaves the corner of Chow’s mouth. But the shot everyone remembers is this one, where our hero blasts his way down the banister:
By description, Hard Boiled sounds like the most rudimentary of cop thrillers, mixing and matching elements that have appeared and reappeared in a hundred others just like it: the rogue hero, the undercover detective who goes too deep and loses himself, the perpetually ticked-off police chief, the flamboyantly evil villain and his faceless henchmen in suits. But much like Michael Mann, Woo and his screenwriters have a heightened awareness of the genre, and treat these standard elements not as clichés, but as archetypes worth blowing up and tweaking a little. And it starts with the larger-than-life Chow as Tequila, a picture of steely determination as a detective embarking on a familiar quest to avenge his partner’s death.
Tequila eventually teams with Tony, an undercover cop who’s gotten dangerously entrenched in triad circles, but Woo smartly holds back on revealing his true identity until we witness a little bad behavior first. As played by Tony Leung—maybe the only actor on the planet cooler than Chow—Tony is initially tagged as a Miami Vice slickster, zipping around in a sports car and shades, doing triad business. For survival’s sake, Tony has to betray his current boss—who’s aged himself out of relevance—in favor of utterly remorseless thug Johnny (Anthony Wong), who’s all too happy to climb to the top on a pile of bodies. Here, Woo starts to make more subtle delineations between good and evil, between men who operate on some sort of moral code and others who gleefully violate it.
The relationship between Tequila and Tony plays out as you might expect, with mutual suspicion finally evaporating into trust and a deeper bond. But Woo goes much further than expected into the difficulty Tony has in extracting himself from the various roles his job requires him to play. Lines like “I’m so busy being a gangster, I don’t know which me is real” put far too fine a point on it, but Woo beautifully evokes his isolation, confusion, and guilt in other ways, like the paper cranes Tony creates to remind himself of the people he’s killed. I’ve never bought Woo’s protestations in interviews that he’s repulsed by the violence his movies could be fairly accused of glorifying, but he does make an effort to give that violence some weight.
Hard Boiled hits the action beats hard when it gets to them, but invests more thought and energy into character work and genre deconstruction than it tends to get credit for. Everyone remembers the big setpieces—the teahouse, the warehouse, the hospital—but even within those spectacular shoot-’em-ups, Woo is a capable of scoring a few thematic points, too. Witness this remarkable scene in the middle of the climactic hospital mêlée, where Tony and his toughest criminal adversary—a thug with an eyepatch and a facial scar, whom we’ve only seen laying waste to people—face off with hostages in the crossfire. They quietly come to terms, and then Johnny steps in:
Watching Hard Boiled again, now that Woo has gone from the great innovator of modern action movies to one of the genre’s casualties, it’s reassuring to see how well it holds up against imitators. It was inevitable that other filmmakers would keep pushing into ever more extravagant feats of choreography, but the shootouts in Hard Boiled maintain an impressive physicality. The advent of “bullet time” and other slo-mo CGI marvels has, serendipitously, given Woo’s work some of its old cachet again, because no matter how outrageous the action gets, it’s still just stunt people, age-old effects, and the cumulative power of his image-making. Add to that Chow and his toothpick, Leung and his sunglasses, and a full-on commitment to emotional and visual excess, and Hard Boiled hasn’t lost much as its tricks (and its director) have been subsumed into the system. What was once an urban myth is now the stuff of legend.
April 15: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover bumped due to lack of availability.)
April 29: The Descent
May 13: Sátántangó