~ short essay on one of my favorite films, Hard Boiled (1992) — a charming crime fantasy with some of the best action sequences in cinema, directed by the legendary John Woo.
This Film Goes Hard
Hard Boiled (1992) is most known for its rip-roaring action sequences. Gun battles with scores of actors, action stars, stuntmen and extras among them — all daring — fill the screen throughout its runtime.
It’s a massive cops and robbers action flick full of practical gun effects, massive explosions, and the patented John Woo shotgun that goes BLAM!
Rewatching recently I was astounded at just how many people got to participate in the film. In the warehouse shootout from act two, there are easily a dozen men on the screen at any one time, rolling around and shooting and ‘dying’ in a dynamic sequence of artful stunts.
Needless to say, there’s not a single computer-generated image here. And aside from looking better, more viscerally theatrical and fun as a result, Woo and his fellow filmmakers should also be proud of the number of people they employed for this project.
Not to discount the advanced technology and work that VFX artists of modern cinema put in today, but Hard Boiled goes hard because you can see everything right in front of you — the people and the action, all in motion and in real-time. I’d recommend the film based on these facts alone.
The plot of Hard Boiled (1992) — John Woo’s swan song for Hong Kong cinema before transitioning to Hollywood and soon after making the immaculately ridiculous Face/Off (1997) — goes like this:
A tough-as-nails cop teams up with an undercover agent to shut down a sinister mobster and his crew.
Chow Yun-Fat is your tough cop and Tony Leung is your undercover agent. And these two beautiful men can best be described as “hard boiled” because of not only how they do their job, but why.
‘Hard boiled’ fiction is tough, unsentimental and full of carnage of both the physical and metaphysical kinds. In Woo’s Boiled, bombastic Inspector “Tequila” Yuen (Yun-Fat) loses a partner in a shootout with the Triad while cool deep cover operative “Alan” (Leung) easily dispatches disloyal client gangsters for a criminal godfather whose trust he’s earned. The loose cannon cop and the two-faced yet sensitive special agent soon cross paths and must work together if they are to survive and bring the ruthless crime lord to justice.
The plot details and comedically bloody gun-battling aside, the audience comes to understand these two men are fundamentally good; they are loyal to the side of justice, even if they have to shoot their way out and harrow their souls along the way to its delivery.
Their war is “heroic bloodshed” and it’s a style of story that Woo is most known for. Hard Boiled, like A Better Tomorrow (1987) and The Killer (1989) before it, comprises this arena of heroic bloodshed, with stylized action set pieces setting heavy duty cops against Romantic robbers. Each side of the conflict is armed with a mastery of “gun fu” and their own self-determined sensibility for what constitutes justice.
Or forget all that and just watch Yun-Fat and Leung stance up in Mexican standoffs, dive across the battlefield with guns in hand, faces stern and hearts inviolate — and tell me this incredible bloodshed isn’t heroic.
Storytelling through Action
Hard Boiled (1992), like all great action movies, delivers its story and characters within the flow of its cinematic core: the action.
The light story unfolds, not just in those heroic shootouts with prime 90s-era practical effects — but also through simple moments with our two principal leads and their developing comradeship.
The film starts in a Hong Kong jazz club, with a silky smooth clarinet playing over the scene. We soon see Tequila with the band on stage, his hand going from a drink to his clarinet. He’s more than his job, he leads his whole life with panache.
Midway through, we discover undercover Alan lives alone on a houseboat along the docks. Earlier, we are introduced to his character through a fantastic driving montage to the downtown library. He clearly knows his way around. He wears shades inside and hides his gun in The Collected Work of Shakespeare. He’s fuckin’ cool!
But on Alan’s boat, where he spends his days on the sea to overcome the restlessness his dark work causes, he also makes delicate little paper cranes. One for each of the people he’s had to kill while in the employ of the Triad, for the Hong Kong police and their long-game sting operation that Inspector Tequila’s hot-headed, lead-filled interventions are soon to either wreck or resolve…
I say the story’s light in Hard Boiled because we all understand why we’re here — the ACTION. But there’s a real sense of heart to these characters and their story well worth appreciating. And not much dialogue is needed to convey this reality — their charisma and the dynamic action, large and small, delivers it all.
This is the calling card of Woo: special men on either side of the law killing for a code. They fight— not for the sake of the law or the spoils of their transgressions against it — but for honor, something only they can define for themselves.
Yuen and Alan lead real lives, they want love even as they kill. They’re proud, ambivalent to the bloodshed while also excelling in it. As such specialists within the drama of law and order, they are beholden to forces and bosses and elders greater than themselves and don’t feel so good about it. They want vengeance for the past, and an escape from it. Dragons to lords, they may want independence more than justice. Tequila’s jazz and Alan’s cranes. The baby and the boat, saved and sailing.
All this is Hard Boiled (1992), and it’s a masterpiece. ~