Okay, so HARD BOILED wasn’t my first exposure to John Woo’s style of film making, but if I have to name the one film of his I could not do without it is this, his swan song before he left Hong Kong to make movies in the USA.
A quick synopsis of the plot- Tequila Yuen (Yun-Fat Chow) is the hard boiled cop of the title. He’s not great at relationships and he’s terrible at following orders, but put a gun in his hand (or even better, two) and he’s a God among men. Alan (played by Tony Leung) is an undercover officer trying to dismantle a ruthless organized crime gang from the inside. At first thinking that they are on opposite sides, the two learn to work together to bring down the ruthless boss Johnny.
Okay, so what makes it pulp though? Is it the action sequences, beautifully shot and which act as a high water mark for heroic bloodshed, a subgenre of action movies featuring high amounts of gunplay, meticulously crafted action choreography, and well, blood?
Is it the seemingly black-and-white characters that get mired in the grey of reality? Where one character who is clearly the heavy discovers there is a line he will not cross when his boss takes a step too far? Where Woo acknowledges the chaos that can result in a running gun battle and that friendly fire might happen and what toll that might take on a character? Is it the core threads of honor and respect that some of the characters hold on to with both hands?
Here are the things that make the movie work for me:
- The stakes are clearly defined throughout the movie. Tequila wants revenge for his partner getting shot. Alan wants to bring down the mob so he can come out from undercover work. Johnny wants to make money by importing as many guns as he can.
- The action is palpable and beautifully done. As a viewer you get sucked in and the way the cinematography is done blows you away.
- There are a few quiet moments in the film, some brief time in introspection. Particularly of note is Tequila’s conversation with a bartender (John Woo himself in a cameo). These function as periodic breaks to give the viewer a chance to catch their breath and prepare for the next bit of action… as opposed to being a never ending sensory barrage.
- The lines are clearly drawn, despite some of the moral ambiguity. The old mob boss is of a more respectable nature, while the up-and-comer Johnny is obviously a more reckless and dangerous element. Despite some of the actions Alan is forced to take while undercover, he shows obvious regret while still acknowledging that the work he is doing is important.
HARD BOILED would receive a sequel of sorts in 2007 in the form of the video game STRANGLEHOLD, with the added bonus of Chow Yun-Fat reprising his role as Tequila, but if you haven’t seen the original… well, what are you waiting for?