One of the genre’s greatest achievements, this represents everything that is so virile about John Woo’s unique brand of action cinema.
Dir. John Woo
1992 | Hong Kong | Action/Crime | 128 mins | 1.85:1 | Cantonese
NC16 (passed clean) for pervasive violence and some language
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Teresa Mo
Plot: A tough-as-nails cop teams up with an undercover agent to shut down a sinister mobster and his crew.
Awards: Won Best Editing & Nom. for Best Supporting Actor (HK Film Awards)
Source: Golden Princess
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Criterion DVD – first published 27 Mar 2011)
John Woo’s final Hong Kong film before he went to Hollywood to direct box-office hits such as Face/Off (1997) and Mission: Impossible II (2000), and disappointing misses such as Windtalkers (2002) and Paycheck (2003), Hard Boiled represents everything that is virile about Woo’s unique brand of action cinema.
His trademark action style plasters all over the film as if it is as brutally wounded as any of the hundred-odd bodies that lie dead in a teahouse, warehouse, and hospital – three locations that set the scene for three incredible action set-pieces that are probably still unmatched in its audacity and body count.
Hard Boiled stars Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung as cops working for the local police department. Chow plays Tequila, a Dirty Harry-type cop who has no qualms about shooting anyone dead. He challenges his superior, takes life-and-death matters into his own hands, and understands that attack is the best form of defence.
In the film, he investigates a case of weapon smuggling by a sinister gangster and his crew, of which Leung’s character, Tony, belongs to. But oblivious to Tequila, Tony is actually an undercover cop. This raises the stakes and tension in what is arguably the purest Asian action film of the nineties.
Hard Boiled is not plot-driven, and it is fairly clear that story takes a backseat in most of Woo’s films. Despite this, Woo still successfully engages viewers with impeccably choreographed gunfight battles that are violent and stylistic enough to demand comparisons to ballet. A ballet of carnage that is.
“Everything goes in and out of style, except war.”
Woo, in many of his Hong Kong actioners, and especially so in this one, has elevated gunfights into an art form, with his signature multiple angles, slow-motion shots and freeze frames. A suspension of belief is necessary to fully appreciate the artistry of violence on show because the characters empty bullets as if there is no tomorrow, and they don’t often stop to reload.
Hard Boiled also features a stunning long take sequence that ranks technically as one of the best ever shot. It occurs in the final third in the aforementioned hospital, and runs for nearly three minutes.
In this long take, we see Tequila and Tony battle the bad guys in a long mazy corridor. They later get into a lift to reload, only to come out with guns blazing again in another corridor. Everything is done in one entire shot, and mind you, in a single take too because of time and budgeting issues.
What is most unbelievable is that the same corridor is used in this entire take. That means the crew had to clear the destruction and change the arrangement of props in just half-a-minute i.e. the time Tequila, Tony and the camera spent waiting in a (non-moving) lift.
If one could forgive its incredulous execution of action and its thin plot, Hard Boiled is definitely a must-watch for all fans of action cinema. The quality of action alone is enough to justify a recommendation for this film. Film critic Mark Salisbury from Empire mentioned that Hard Boiled is “more exciting than a dozen Die Hards”. While that is exaggerating, it is also not far from the truth.
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