John Woo’s 1992 magnum opus Hard Boiled is spoken of by serious action movie fans in the awed, reverent tones usually reserved for films like Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai. Like those films, Hard Boiled displays an exceptional director at the top of his game, telling an engaging story with all the technical wizardry available to him.
John Woo burst onto the international film scene in 1986 with the smash hit A Better Tomorrow. He had been working as something of a journeyman director for eighteen years, a productive span during which he directed roughly a movie a year in genres ranging from martial arts films to screwball comedies, to varying degrees of commercial success. A Better Tomorrow, his sixteenth film as a director, changed all that. This gritty, sensationalistic tale of two brothers – one a gangster and one a cop – introduced two major elements to Hong Kong cinema: frenetic, two-fisted gunfight set pieces, and Chow Yun-Fat. With his signature matchstick clenched in his teeth and a pistol in each hand, Yun-Fat was instantly iconic, even inspiring a fashion trend in Hong Kong of young men dressing like his character in the film.
Woo and Yun-Fat teamed up again in 1987 for A Better Tomorrow’s sequel and in 1989 for the even more successful The Killer – at the time the most internationally successful Hong Kong film since Enter the Dragon. All three films featured Yun-Fat playing variations on the cool gangster archetype (one of the most famous images from A Better Tomorrow is Yun-Fat in black Ray Bans lighting a cigarette with a counterfeit hundred dollar bill). Though his gangster films were big hits, they also came under fire for glamorizing the criminal lifestyle, so Woo decided to go in the opposite direction with Hard Boiled, casting Yun-Fat as a take-no-prisoners police officer.
Yun Fat plays Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, introduced in a tea house sting operation that erupts into a fierce gun battle with a group of arms dealers, concealing their merchandise in the tea house’s ornamental birdcages (a John Woo trademark; if a gun can be hidden in something, it will be). The showdown concludes with the death of Tequila’s partner as well as a key informant, resulting in Tequila being taken off the case even as it kicks his need to catch the bad guys into overdrive. Meanwhile, undercover cop Alan (Tony Leung) is infiltrating the arms dealers’ criminal empire, bringing him into direct conflict with Tequila, who doesn’t know he’s an undercover cop.
Despite the shift from lawless gangsters and hitmen to police officers, Hard Boiled feels like even more of an amoral celebration of violence than Woo’s previous films, in part because it is less concerned with the consequences of that violence. In A Better Tomorrow, when Chow Yun-Fat’s stylish crook is shot in the leg following a hit, it cripples him, busting him down in the criminal ranks from respected gangster to lowly window-washer. Likewise, in The Killer, Yun-Fat’s feared hitman Ah Jong (referred to as Jeff in the American subtitles, possibly in reference to his inspiration – Alain Delon’s no-nonsense hitman in Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai) spends the entirety of the movie trying to atone for his sin of accidentally blinding a nightclub singer during an assassination. Without emotional (and often melodramatic) elements such as these, Hard Boiled trades some of Woo’s humanity in favor of spectacle.
But let’s not bury the lede any further: Hard Boiled offers amazing spectacle. The action in Hard Boiled is mostly spread out over three set pieces at the beginning, middle and end of the film, culminating in a climactic siege on a hospital, a justly legendary explosion of gunfire and pyrotechnics that takes up the bulk of the film’s final hour. Bullets and explosions rip through every element of the scenery, armed goons fly through the air on motorcycles, and in the film’s most famous image, Yun-Fat slides down a bannister firing dual pistols, his signature matchstick clenched in his teeth.
The virtues of John Woo’s action directing are obvious, and justly celebrated. What gets short shrift, however, is his command of the film’s complex plot. The tense dynamics of Alan’s undercover climb through the Hong Kong underworld predate 2002’s Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and its American remake, The Departed, and Woo blurs the line between cops and criminals at least as well as in those films. Also underrated is Woo’s facility with actors; Chow Yun-Fat is of course the king of cool, ingratiating in every bit of casual body language and able to make even the most over-the-top action movie acrobatics feel natural. Leung, however, is the film’s secret weapon, with his complex, layered facial acting always effectively communicating the trapped-animal intensity that makes the undercover cop plotline hum. Woo also gives each of the film’s lead characters an artistic outlet, keeping them from ever simply being avatars of violence; Tequila plays clarinet in a jazz bar he one day hopes to own, while Alan folds a paper crane for each person he kills. The latter detail is perhaps personal for Woo; like Alan, he finds his artistic expression through acts of violence.
Hard Boiled is a masterpiece of action filmmaking that easily matches such celebrated action epics as The Road Warrior and Die Hard. As the last film Woo made in Hong Kong before emigrating to Hollywood (where he would, unfortunately, never equal his Hong Kong masterpieces, except arguably with the gonzo energy of Face/Off), it feels like the ultimate expression of everything he made his name on. While it may skimp on the emotional heft of his earlier works, the sheer intensity of Hard Boiled is enough to make it genre-defining.