Some exercises in genre simply transcend the genres they are part of – such is the case with John Woo’s 1992 action-crime film Hard Boiled. The story is pure pulp, modeled after your standard issue American cop-buddy films. On the one hand we have our loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules and gets results but is constantly at odds with his supervisor who has assigned him to a gun-running gang case, on the other an assassin working for an established crime family under siege from a ruthless up-and-coming crime boss who wants all the gun-running business in Hong Kong for himself. Our loose cannon is a cop named Tequila, played with inimitable cool by Chow Yun-Fat, introduced in the opening scene in a raid on the up-and-coming gun-running gang. The raid goes horribly wrong and turns into a civilian massacre in which his long-time partner is killed. Before this 10 ½ minute scene is over, the body count in the film (which is probably impossible to accurately keep) already exceeds that of most full-length action features. Our cunning assassin is Tony, played by Tony Leung, introduced in the next scene in a flawlessly and soundlessly executed hit in a library that Tequila is then assigned to as part of his work with the gun-running case. And we’re off!
Hard Boiled works with many of the clichés of macho action-thrillers you’ve seen before, but there’s no film I’ve ever seen that pushes everything to the extreme – and even beyond to the point of almost comic absurdity – the way this one does. Sure, you have your codes of honor binding both cops and criminals (except for the really bad guys with no honor whatsoever), you have your jokey camaraderie (except when everyone suddenly gets deadly serious), your endless supply of bullets and no stops for reloading (except at crucial moments when someone’s empty chamber is needed for dramatic effect), and you’ve seen those before, but the combination of the constantly roving camera, the basic goodness and likeability of the heroes, the pure, non-stop kinetic energy of the film have no parallels I’ve ever seen – outside of John Woo’s catalog, anyway. Or perhaps since the release of this film and Woo’s other masterpiece The Killer (also starring Chow Yun-Fat in the title role) action movies have changed. The kind of crazy, stylized violence on display here has raised the bar for what can be done in action films, and just how intense they can be. And despite the intensity, there are still moments of humor throughout – though sometimes you’re chuckling because it’s a release of tension as much as actual humor. But you know there’s some tongue firmly in cheek when one gun-runner complains about another with “His low prices are killing my market, I’m losing out.” Or when Chow Yun-Fat, in a raid on an arms arsenal, shoots a motorcyclist speeding toward him with gun drawn, then leaps over that cyclist’s skidding bike to shoot yet another cyclist in midair (that bike explodes) then lands on his feet to dodge the flaming remains of the second motorcycle, it’s clear that Woo and company know when they’re skirting the edge of the ridiculous – that it’s simultaneously exciting and chuckle-worthy is one of the great accomplishments of the film. It’s also worth noting that the stunts throughout – especially the many shots done in close quarters with explosions or shattering glass – are hair-raising and I hope these stuntmen were paid extremely well.
The film comes charging out of the gate with scene after scene of action until it hits its middle. At this point it slows down just long enough to shift our perception of who are the good and bad guys and to set up the rest of the plot, then it shoots forward into its final set piece – an assault on an inner city hospital that lasts about 45 minutes. It’s the culmination of everything the film – and additionally John Woo – has been working toward to this point and it’s a remarkably sustained bit of tension, humorous bits notwithstanding. Especially notable is a virtuoso continuous shot that must have been a nightmare to choreograph – a 2 minute and 40 second sequence that travels with our heroes from floor to floor while they work out dialogue, have a sustained shootout with the bad guys, and move around the hospital chasing one of the toughest and most violent members of the gang. Everything that’s been set up to this point from the opening shootout and the iconic imagery throughout is merely leading up to this closing sequence and it’s worth every second. The whole film is a thrilling, exhausting, extremely violent ride, but it’s also one of the best and most exciting action films you’ll ever see.- Patrick Brown