Hard Boiled (1992, dir. John Woo)
Starring Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung
A man leaps through the air in slow motion, wielding twin semi-automatic pistols. Carnage ensues. This is the trademark of Hong Kong action director John Woo, who managed to pretty much invent his own sub-genre of action movies. These are stories where black and white are clearly defined, heroes are wise-cracking bad asses, and the villains are most definitely villainous. This was my first foray into the world of Woo, I skipped his Mission: Impossible sequel and shied away from Face/Off. So, after twenty years of hype, how did I find the master actioneer?
Hard Boiled is the tale of two men. Officer “Tequila” Yuen is a cop dedicated to bringing down the Triad gun running ring plaguing Hong Kong. Tony is a cop deep undercover who is the apple of crimeboss Hoi’s eye. Tony is recruited by upstart gangster Johnny Wong to take out Hoi and control crime in the city. Tequila and Tony end up reluctant partners in a crusade to bring Wong to justice. Along the way they form a rivalry over the same woman and end up indebted to each other. Also thrown into the mix is Mad Dog, Johnny Wong’s super hitman with a clear sense of honor in his profession.
Hard Boiled has an interesting problem. Barry Wong, the screenwriter died halfway through film, while he was still writing the screenplay. So Woo and his production staff had to cobble together some place for the film to go. Knowing this, it makes up somewhat for the rather random directions the picture goes in its latter half. There’s also the fact that the character of Tony started out as an incredibly sociopathic character, going so far as to poison baby’s milk. The actor wasn’t too comfortable with playing a character like that and convinced Woo to make him more likable. Alongside this is a very uneven love story between Tequila and fellow officer.
What the film does well is the way it tells its story. Woo is amazing when it comes to framing shots and setting up elaborate sequences that turn normally dull shoot outs into ballet performances. Several times Woo chooses to drop the typical camera shots and go into first person or into some unexpected tracking shot that slowly reveals information to us. He’s also influenced greatly by some unexpected sources, in particular Francois Truffat. If you’ve seen The 400 Blows, than you will recognize that same ending zoom in, freeze frame technique used here a handful of times. It surprisingly works and its impressive that Woo was thinking about such “arty” fare when composing a Hong Kong crime movie. Like I said before, Woo was inventing his own genre at this point in his career.
It’s nothing spectacular. The weak story definitely hurt the film, but there are a number of interesting set pieces, in particular a mob-owned hospital the last half of the film takes place in. The film make use of practical special effects via explosions in way CG just can’t ever mimic. A fun film that hearkens back to an era of uber violent and gaudy over the top crime movies.