Plenty of entertaining action movies have been made since John Woo's 1992 Hard Boiled, but really, what's the point? Though Woo has tried to top himself—most successfully in Face/Off, the closest thing to a personal film he ever made in Hollywood—and his peers in Hong Kong and America have imitated him endlessly, he pulled out all the stops for Hard Boiled, much like his hero Sam Peckinpah did with The Wild Bunch. From the opening shootout at a bird-filled teahouse to a climactic battle royal at a hospital that doubles as a weapons cache, Hard Boiled packs all Woo's stylistic and thematic hallmarks into 120 minutes of unparalleled excess. And yet the film isn't all choreographed stunts and balletic gunplay: Within the standard-issue premise of a cop-on-the-edge, an undercover mole, and the sneering triad gunrunners they're trying to bring down, Woo finds great nuance in the codes of honor that affect hero and villain alike.
As a measure of his inestimable cool, Chow Yun-Fat gnaws on a toothpick that never leaves his mouth throughout the entire teahouse sequence, where mere mortals would have plenty of cause to scream and yell, or at least stand slack-jawed at all the spectacle. When Chow loses his partner to triad thugs, his grief manifests as a personal vendetta, and he recklessly hacks through mob henchmen in a quest for revenge. His actions pose a major threat to Tony Leung, an undercover cop whose successful infiltration of the gun-smuggler's operation could unravel quickly if Chow keeps gumming up the works.
Woo loves to work in dualities—cop and crook, good and evil, Smith and Wesson—but his characters aren't all that starkly delineated. There's real torment in Leung's undercover job, where he has no doubt compromised (or personally extinguished) many lives in order to keep his cover from being blown, and even a few of the chief thugs have lines that they won't cross in the name of supervillainy. Hard Boiled doesn't necessarily need that level of sophistication, since the celebrated action sequences are enough to put it in the upper echelon of Hong Kong cinema. But at his best, Woo has always had more than mere bullets in his arsenal.
Key features: A first-rate commentary by Hong Kong expert Bey Logan joins a sloppy assemblage of interviews and mini-features on disc two.