Many Directors have their favoured actors to work with, often protégés who go on to become masters in their own right. Scorsese collaborated with DeNiro, right through from Mean Streets to Casino, spanning over two decades; and now Scorsese’s new student/master is DiCaprio, with whom he’s been making great movies now for over 10 years (Aviator, Shutter Island). Luc Besson worked with Jean Reno on most of both of their best movies (Leon, Nikita); the same for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp (from Edward Scissorhands to Alice in Wonderland); John Carpenter and Kurt Russell (Escape from New York, The Thing); Richard Donner and Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon franchise, Conspiracy Theory), or even legendary Japanese Director Akira Kurosawa, who partnered with master actor Toshiro Mifune for something like a dozen top movies (including Sanjuro and Seven Samurai).
Hong Kong Director John Woo has worked with a few different big names in Hollywood, during his brief stint – pairing up with both John Travolta, Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater a couple of times each (Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Windtalkers) – but the West hasn’t always been all that accommodating to foreign Directors, particularly ones like Woo, who have largely made their name on pure style and visceral, explosive action. Despite Face/Off being a cracking actioner, Woo’s best work – arguably – has been back home, both before (The Killer), and after (Red Cliff) his Hollywood run. And he made his name in the first place with a series of excellent collaborations with Hong Kong legend Chow Yun-Fat, a man who found the same fate in Hollywood, and has clearly done the best of his work back home. Back then, in the late eighties and early nineties, it was a golden era for both Director and Actor, a time where they made not only some of their best work, but also – in my opinion – the single best movie from either of their film histories. One of the greatest action movies of all time, 1992’s Hard Boiled.
During a covert operation to bust a bunch of gun runners, Inspector “Tequila” Yuen and his partner are caught in the crossfire between rival gangs. With a pile of dead bodies – one of them an undercover cop, killed by his own hand – Tequila is left on the edge. His personal life in tatters, his girlfriend close to leaving him, and his boss threatening suspension, Tequila has but one mission – to take down the crime bosses behind it all. A one-man army, he is prepared to put his life on the line, with a gun in each hand, in order to take down these men, despite the legion of soldiers facing him. But things get complicated when he discovers that there is another undercover cop deep amidst the gangs, working as a top assassin for one of the crime bosses’ lieutenants. How far will the assassin go to protect his cover? And how far will Tequila go to crack the case?
It’s ironic to think that Woo himself had originally intended this, which turned out to be his last Hong Kong movie for some 15 years, to be a departure from his earlier stylish-gunplay-founded actioners. Rather than portray violent criminals, shooting two guns in slow-motion (as he had done for several successive, successful movies) his intention was to create a more realistic Detective story, about a cop chasing a serial killer who was poisoning new-born babies in hospitals. John Woo? Realistic? I hear you say. Yes, you may not believe it, but that was his original intention. Of course – as soon as Woo got to work on the production, his style soon took over, and with a few lucky breaks (the tea shop in the opening scene was due for demolition) pushing him further towards his predilections, he swiftly returned to what he does best, and did it better than ever before. Along the way characters were reworked and even added, more guns and explosives acquired, and 300 dead bodies and 128 minutes later and you had pure Woo excellence.
In fact Hard Boiled is the kind of movie that makes “Top Action Films” lists. Massively influential on action set-pieces ever since, it’s a defining movie in the genre, a non-stop rollercoaster ride; something often said about movies, but which actually holds true here. Immediately you are catapulted into that frenetic tea-shop shootout which shows you just what the hero is made of, and just what the Director is capable of. Bodies falling, bullets whizzing, the environment exploding around you, it’s a tremendous set-piece, full of fantastic moves, stylised action, and some of the best gunplay you have ever seen. And that’s just the start. A little more background into the hero, ably portrayed by the charismatic Chow Yun-Fat, and then you get to know the anti-hero, the undercover cop haunted by the kills he has been forced to make whilst maintaining his cover. A young Tony Leung brings some humanity to his role of the slick gangland assassin, who genuinely feels for his gang boss, as the shifts in power cause the various groups to fight amidst one another. He’s doing his job, but it certainly takes its toll, and when confronted with Tequila’s heroics, he is forced to face some tough decisions.
We get a variety of villains, but Woo is very clever in giving them some element of attempted depth too. After introducing Tony, we see the men he works for – and with – and see the various shades of grey: the ageing gang boss, who has a moral code of his own but is faced with young psychopaths vying for his position; the ambitious, amoral lieutenant who will do whatever it takes to rise to power; the top class shooter henchman (a great character added in the rewrite), a professional killer, like Tony, but also – strangely – not without his own moral code of conduct. It’s a colourful group of reasonably rounded characters, and you enjoy watching the battles because, no matter how many bodies fall by the wayside, there are always a couple of individuals involved who you either like or loathe.
That said, the usual Woo gripe comes into play in this one – he is pretty universally bad at portraying relationships. Apparently there was a longer cut which had more from the relationship between Tequila and his on-off girlfriend. Thankfully here they keep it to the bare minimum, but there’s still plenty of pretty childish stuff on offer, as if Woo only sees relationships the way most adults would remember them at high school. I’m sure Woo calls it a romanticised version of love, but the reality is that it’s generally very cheesy and very silly.
Still, when you boil it down, and despite the talented contribution of Tony Leung, this whole vehicle is held together by one man. Woo’s protégé, the great Chow Yun-Fat. He may have proven his acting mettle in many other movies – from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Confucius – but my favourite of his action movies (and of his pairings with Woo) has got to be Hard Boiled. And out of all his collaborations with Woo (the A Better Tomorrow series was enjoyable, but disjointed – and literally only worth watching for the stylised action; and Once a Thief just didn’t know whether it was a silly comedy, or an action drama; the excellent The Killer being the only one that really stands up to comparison) Hard Boiled is the only one that is pitched perfectly. Chow Yun-Fat forges the most likeable, charismatic and engaging of all of his action personas; simply awesome with his toothpick-in-mouth, diving across the room with two pistols blazing away (actually inspired by the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). He’s Dirty Harry infused with Johnny Rambo. A quality action hero.
And that’s what you came here for: the action. Most action movies could only hope to achieve the level of intense action that is captured in just one of the shootouts in Hard Boiled, and it contains several. There are two standout explosive set-pieces just within the first hour, then another brief shootout, and then an almost hour-long hospital-based finale that, in itself, is better than most entire action features. It’s shootout after shootout, standoff after standoff, an almost unimaginable number of permutations on each of them lending each individual moment a sense of tension and freshness, despite the fact that they are now the staple elements of films within the genre. It has to be seen to be believed.
And Woo doesn’t like to do things by halves, which was probably a big reason why his Hollywood efforts did not quite get off the ground – the restrictions in the West must be much greater. Here, everything blows up with ten times as much explosive energy as it would in reality. Somebody shoots an empty barrel and it goes whizzing into the air and explodes like a firework. Apparently Woo nearly incinerated Chow Yun-Fat during the exploding corridor scene towards the end – he was that enthusiastic about the explosions! It’s insane, and a true spectacle to behold. Sure, it’s all beyond the realms of reality (for example, his characters have guns – Beretta 92Fs are his preferred weapons of choice – which are renowned for having, literally, infinite bullets), a fact which was capitalised upon when Woo directed his first Videogame, the unofficial Hard Boiled sequel, Stranglehold, featuring contributions from Chow Yun-Fat. (It was a repetitive game, but wow did you have some fantastic, explosive true-Woo action moments in the game, which went way beyond any realm of reality, way beyond the scope of physics.) But, hey, you don’t watch a movie like Hard Boiled for its realism, you watch it for its visceral escapism.
So go watch Hard Boiled. See Chow Yun-Fat’s supercop Tequila in action. Check out the opening tea-shop shootout – the hidden pistols, the sliding down the banister with both guns blazing; the warehouse double-assault – swinging down from the ceiling, machine gun blazing, into a room-full of gangsters, and pulling that shotgun off his back in one fluid moment; and the extended hospital finale – shooting it out in the basement, and sliding into that roomful of armed villains on his knees, shotgun loaded and ready-to-bear, and that 3-minute single-take corridor shootout. With half a dozen Mexican standoffs and literally dozens of iconic moments, this is the John Woo / Chow Yun-Fat team at their very best, providing the ultimate in hyperkinetic, expertly choreographed action; and balletic, ballistic gunplay. A truly seminal action epic. As I’ve stated, it has to be seen to be believed. And for those who have seen it, you know exactly what I mean. Highly recommended.
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