When I first saw John Woo’s Hard Boiled, at the age of 18, it served as an entry point into the world of highly-stylized Hong Kong action films and felt, to me at least, like a breath of fresh air. Seven or eight minutes into the film, having witnessed the toothpick-chewing cop ‘Tequila’ Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) slide down a banister while firing two guns at an adversary in the middle of a chaotic gunfight, I was hooked. The frenetic action barely subsided in the following two hours, and as soon as it finished I wanted to find out more. I needed to see Woo’s earlier films, and to discover the other filmmakers from Hong Kong that were making similar work. Looking back today I guess it was just an adolescent phase of sorts, like listening to heavy metal or experimenting with acne. Most of us grow out of such teenage obsessions, eventually, although (perfectly understandably) they stay with some people for life.
Re-watching Hard Boiled today is an interesting and somewhat exhausting experience. My own tastes have changed considerably, and as a result the prospect of watching a film notable primarily for its action sequences doesn’t quite hold the same appeal in 2014 as it did in 1993. However it is interesting to consider the film once again but with the added context of Woo’s subsequent career in Hollywood and his influence over the action sequences of a great many US films from the early 1990s onwards. And, admittedly, those action sequences are still damn cool.
* In addition to Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino referenced Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II in his script for Tony Scott’s True Romance and also nodded to The Killer in Jackie Brown. Oliver Stone’s passion for Hong Kong cinema ensured that the influence of Woo could also be seen in the film of another Tarantino script, 1994’s Natural Born Killers.
Woo was already lauded by familiar western directors, including the freshly minted enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino, when Hard Boiled arrived with a fair amount of fanfare in the UK. His style and stories were already being copied by Tarantino, who appropriated some of Woo’s standard touches in his debut Reservoir Dogs*, a movie which also borrowed heavily from Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong crime thriller City On Fire. The reviews for Woo’s new film praised the director’s balletic, mesmeric action sequences, rightly claiming that they served to highlight a collective lack of imagination in the set pieces of the turgid Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Seagal vehicles churned out by Hollywood around the same time, and many critics waxed lyrical about the extremity of the movie’s violent imagery.
And that much remains as true today as it was in the early 1990s. The three main action sequences of Hard Boiled – set in a tea house, a warehouse and a hospital respectively – are as gripping as they are exciting, with Woo’s trademark double gun action featuring prominently as Tequila and undercover cop Tony (Tony Leung) attempt to bring down a Triad gang in the most unsubtle of ways. The director’s use of slow-mo and his preference for OTT blood capsule detonations recalls Sam Peckinpah, but there’s much more going on than just a series of bangs and broad strokes of claret flashing across the screen. Each scene is choreographed superbly, and the noise of the repetitive explosions and gunfire forms a symphonic homage to death and destruction that becomes something of a test of endurance, to see how long you can last without bursting into ecstatic, delirious laughter. Woo’s gunfights may appear to be chaotic but there is an underlying structure and planning that really is impressive given the frenetic pace at which these battles play out. Every move, every glance, every dying henchman in the background is as meticulously constructed and considered as any scene from any Terence Malick movie, for example.
Watching these sequences can be hard work, though. The body count is high and disbelief must certainly be suspended, especially when Tequila manages to hurdle a skidding motorbike that is heading for him while simultaneously blowing another bike up with a well-placed shotgun blast to the fuel tank, or when he fires off close to 100 bullets without reloading. It’s also difficult, if you are unable to understand Cantonese, to concentrate on the sheer amount of action and read the subtitles at the same time, although admittedly it’s not of paramount importance to follow the hackneyed dialogue; a good guy takes on some bad guys here, and that’s all you really need to know.
* Lesson: never be a cop’s partner. Be the cop partner of the dead partner cop (i.e. the partner cop who has a dead cop partner for a partner, not the partner to the dead cop’s partner) instead. The chances of survival are far superior.
It never used to matter to me, but what disappoints the most today is that the three main set pieces are all that’s worth celebrating about Hard Boiled. That may sound a little churlish given the quality of the shootouts on screen and I know the point about action films is that the action needs to be good, in the same way that comedy films stand or fall by the number of laughs they generate, but it must be said that the plot of Hard Boiled has its share of holes and the movie is jam packed full of cliché. The moments in between the big set pieces sag and contain way too many typical cop scenarios and stereotypes: Tequila’s partner is killed*. His desire for revenge is so strong he is unable to follow the clear instructions laid out by his boss Superintendent Pang (Philip Chan), and is removed from the case as a result. Naturally that doesn’t stop Tequila from carrying on with his investigation. He drowns his sorrows in a local bar, where he can confide in the bartender, although he struggles to communicate with his kind-hearted girlfriend Teresa Chang (Teresa Mo). Meanwhile Tony, the lone wolf undercover cop, lives on a boat. And so on and so on. All that’s missing is the handing over of the badge and gun and a line or two from Tequila’s partner about his up-coming retirement before he bites the first of several bullets.
Perhaps more is expected of an action film today, and arguably it’s wrong to judge a movie made over 20 years ago by today’s standards, but the clichés of Hard Boiled are legion, and the appeal of a revenge / undercover sting tale was waning even in Woo’s early years. There is an inescapable whiff of cheese about the whole affair, particularly with regard to Tequila’s conversations with Teresa, and there are moments within the action scenes that will make even the staunchest defender of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed cinema cringe. Worst of all is the transparent attempt to heighten the emotional stakes with the introduction of a new-born baby amidst the hail of bullets in the hospital. In its defence the acting here is good, especially Chow Yun-Fat, and despite a lack of character development he delivers a credible performance of a cop under severe pressure (as indeed do Chan and Leung).
Sadly Woo had to tone down the gunplay and the arcs of blood in the years he worked in the US; the likes of Broken Arrow, Face/Off and The Replacement Killers are weak when directly compared to the veracity of Hard Boiled, and by the late 1990s the director’s schtick felt a little dated, partly because of the number of imitators that copped his style: Last Man Standing, The Mummy and – in particular – The Matrix owed debts to Woo and each has their respective merits, but they also served to distil the impact of his films. The sight of a slow-motion gunslinger flying through the air became so ubiquitous it even found its way into the James Bond and Alien franchises, both of which tended to rely on their own legacies for inspiration and generally avoided borrowing so brazenly and unimaginatively from elsewhere (Moonraker aside).
Still, in the early 1990s at least, I didn’t roll my eyes when I saw a bird flapping its wings in slow motion in a John Woo movie and Chow Yun-Fat was relatively unknown in the west, yet to cheapen himself by appearing in the likes of Bulletproof Monk and Pirates Of The Caribbean. Aficionados of Hong Kong action films may point to The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II as being superior examples of Woo’s contribution to the genre, but Hard Boiled retains a special place in my heart as it gave me my first taste of this talented director of high-octane action thrills. Time has not been all that kind, unfortunately, and ultimately I feel like I need more from a movie these days to keep on loving it, but the gunfights here remain absolutely captivating. Ultimately, it must be conceded that the movie delivers on its main aim - to supply thrills through its violence – but it does not attempt to reach greater heights, and that’s unfortunate; everything surrounding the action sequences seems stale and boring today.
Directed by: John Woo
Written by: John Woo, Gorden Chan, Barry Wong
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Teresa Mo
Running Time: 128 minutes