“Give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.”
John Woo. Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong. ‘Nuff said.
Though his style never fully gelled with Western audiences (coming as close as it ever will at the turn of the millennium with the gleefully unrestrained Face/Off and the abysmal M:I-2), John Woo has solidified himself as one of Hong Kong’s most historically important filmmakers, cementing his slick aesthetic and cunning commentary into the city’s cinematic consciousness.
That Hard Boiled would be his last film made in Hong Kong resonates throughout the picture, permeating it with an unforgettable mix of urgent excess and melancholic detachment that his earlier, more emotional works (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer) never quite carried.
Hard Boiled is the single greatest action film ever made. It’s at once lighter on its feet than most action films manage to be, yet carries far more emotional weight than any of those films can hope to attain.
The film stars Chow Yun-fat as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, and Tony Leung as Tony, a cop whose undercover affiliation the ruthless Triads is becoming blurred. After his partner is gunned down in a sloppy teahouse shootout, Tequila partners up with Tony to take down the gangsters once and for all.
Afraid of, hurt by, and generally pissed off at the 90s’ influx of violent crime to Hong Kong, Woo wanted to craft his own Dirty Harry-esque action hero (Tequila) to glamorize the city’s police before he left. Hard Boiled was released in Hong Kong in 1992 to generally positive audience reception, though it was not as commercially successful as Woo’s previous action films. Reception from Western critics was far more enthusiastic, with many critics citing its action scenes to be some of the greatest ever filmed.
Yun-fat is equal parts empathetic everyman and hard-boiled lawman – his portrayal of supercop Tequila is similar to Bruce Willis’s John McClane, with a dash more heroism thrown in for good measure.
He’s good at what he does – the best, in fact – but his relationship with his wife is on the rocks. He gets chewed out at work. He’d rather be playing saxophone than busting Triad gun smugglers. The list goes on and on.
Leung is pitch-perfect as Tony, and manages to inject a welcome dose of subtlety into an otherwise traditionally operatic Woo film – Woo treats his material like Shakespeare in 1990s crime-ridden Hong Kong, which is compelling, but often ignores little moments. His characters speak grandly and act explosively.
Leung, however, plays his character’s blurred conscience with understated intensity, and his ponderous moments aboard his lonely boat home mark some of the film’s much-welcome “catch your breath” moments.
I first watched Hard Boiled at age 15 after my curiosity was peaked from seeing it “Out of Print” on the Criterion Collection’s website. I was warned that it would take me time to get used to Woo’s style, and with Hard Boiled I was thrown right into the trenches. Action set pieces galore pepper the film’s opening two acts, but the final forty-five minutes of the film – the infamous hospital shoot-out, which includes the clip embedded above – are fucking insane, I tell you.
Nothing, nothing can prepare you for Hard Boiled‘s third act. I had to see it to believe it. It makes all other cinematic shootouts look tame in comparison, just as The Raid: Redemption‘s fight choreography immediately neuters all fight scenes you’ve seen before it. The levels of destruction – and practical destruction, at that – are unprecedented. Criterion describes Woo’s shootouts as “violence as poetry, rendered by a master,” and I couldn’t agree more.
It takes true control to manage destruction of this magnitude and keep it engaging, riveting, and from sinking into confusion and by god, Woo does it expertly. He is the master, and Hard Boiled is his finest hour. Check it out, and watch it on the biggest, brightest, loudest screen possible.
Until then…. I got nothing. That third act. Watch it.