Why John Woo’s ‘Hard Boiled’ is Pure Modern Action Perfection
UAMC honors legendary action director John Woo and his 1992 classic ‘Hard Boiled’
n his AV/Film review of John Woo’s Hard Boiled, Tom Breihan claimed, “Taste is subjective and all, but if you have a top-five action-movies list and Hard Boiled isn’t on it, your top five ain’t shit.” I don’t usually care for statements like that, but I will concur that it’s hard to imagine any action movie buff who wouldn’t get a big kick out of Woo’s overwrought bullet ballet, his last Hong Kong production before he emigrated to the States.
Jazz-loving, toothpick-chomping Officer “Tequila” (Chow Yun-Fat) loses his long-time partner in a teahouse shootout with a pack of gun-smugglers. Intent on justice and/or revenge, he pursues the criminals, leading him to contact with Alan (Tony Leung), an undercover cop spying on the triads and posing as a hired killer.
Their partnership is uneasy, since Alan is slowly crumbling under the stress from the endless violence, but the two must set aside these doubts when the criminals take an entire hospital hostage, culminating in one of the most outrageous and wonderful thriller climaxes of all time.
Ultimate Style Over Ultimate Substance
The most common complaint about Hard Boiled is that it’s a classic example of “style over substance,” and I’m not going to debate that. While the film does touch on questions of honor in a violent world, it never goes into great detail about it.
When I think of Hard Boiled, I think of a series of impressive action set-pieces rather than a compelling story, true. The teahouse shootout with Tequila keeping a toothpick poised between his lips as he evades close-range gunfire, and the climactic showdown in the hospital where Tequila must rescue an entire maternity ward of crying infants from certain death, are the things which leave their mark in Hard Boiled, and not so much the complexity of the characters. However, Hard Boiled is impressively staged and so much fun. Considering how that’s all it appears to aspire to be, I’m not going to go crazy criticizing the narrative.
John Woo’s Action Mastery
While Woo is more interested in adrenaline and kinetic filmmaking in this movie, don’t assume this is Michael Bay levels of mindlessness—the film keeps itself in check with its wry, even dark sense of humor. (See the scene where a baby peeing on itself saves Tequila from burning to death. No, I’m not joking, that is a scene.)
Before viewing, it must be made clear that Hard Boiled runs on what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Cool, the idea that the audience can swallow something implausible or downright ridiculous as long as it is packaged in overwhelming awesomeness. If you demand hardcore realism in your action movies, then of course you’ll balk at 95% of what happens in Hard Boiled (or for that matter, most 80s/90s action movies!). But did we come here expecting realism? Nope!
Hard Boiled features some of the most breathtaking action scenes ever to grace the silver screen. Motorcycles exploding in mid-jump? Check! Windows breaking from the forcing of dramatically falling bodies? Check! Seemingly endless hordes of gun-toting henchmen? Check! Elaborate tracking shots crammed with gunplay and suspense? Check! (No shaky cam to obscure the choreography, either!)
The Coolness of Chow Yun-Fat
The other prime attraction is Chow Yun-Fat, as charismatic as ever. The man is unspeakably cool, casually throwing off one-liners and walking into battle with a baby cradled in his arm with the utmost confidence. He makes you believe in every outrageous moment because you just buy that this man could walk into a den of vicious underworld thugs and walk out alive.
Unlike The Killer, here he plays a man on the right side of the law, though no less troubled. His Tequila is brave, smart, and willing to risk his life to save innocents, but an undercurrent of aggression just barely put in check courses through him. Tequila is an angry man, angry at his superiors, angry at the criminals. One wonders if he will ever find any peace, even after the credits roll.
Tony Leung’s Alan is also troubled, disturbed by the violence in his line of work. Like Tequila, there is a hint of melancholy in the character which lends the movie what depth it has. Both actors have great chemistry that makes the action scenes even more fun to watch.
Hard Boiled is pure action. Some might even say it’s pure cinema with its intense focus on visuals and exciting motion more so than dialogue or much else. Whatever you call it, it’s a fun ride and not easily forgotten. If his previous work hadn’t proved it enough, Hard Boiled proclaims Woo undoubtedly a master of his craft and a modern action movie master.
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