4 stars out of 4. The greatest action film I have ever seen. Immortal film.
Nothing can prepare you for Hard Boiled. This is without a doubt, the greatest combination of realism and fantasy found in action cinema. I consider it as the second half of an unofficial duology of director John Woo remarking on the aspects of action and death from the points of view of the so called “good” and “bad”. (The other film being The Killer.)
In the first five minutes, a tranquil bird-filled teahouse is completely destroyed by gunfire. The body count is already towering over the majority of US action films, and most importantly Chow Yun-fat has picked up two .45’s. Oh. My. Dear. God.
Towards the end of this sequence, two gunmen are attempting to escape Chow’s hard boiled super cop Tequila. They fire on the run which forces Tequila to hang over a stair railing.
All of the action in this film is choreographed in such a way that it completely astounds the senses. Woo had long been an admirer or Sam Peckinpah, who had been credited with creating ballets of violence in his films. Here, the ballet becomes a symphony of sheer unbelievability. Nothing really compares to this. The trademark use of slow motion and repeated shot intercutting that Woo became known for is ramped to its extreme in this overload of Hong Kong action cinema. It is glorious.
The story revolves around Tequila and his attempts to track down the gun runners behind the gangsters in the opening sequence. His unorthodox methods are intercut with the story of rising Triad, Tony (Tony Leung) who is introduced as a stylish hitman as he guns down a deserter in a public library. Tony works for boss Uncle Hoi, who is facing a large threat from his rival in the gun trade Johnny Wong, who also happens to be completely psychotic. (and a fan of brightly colored jackets…)
Wong decides to recruit Tony to replace the man killed in the library. He sets about this by attacking Uncle Hoi’s warehouse and forcing Tony to kill Uncle Hoi. This accomplished, Johnny is now the head Triad. Then Tequila comes down from the ceiling on a wire and takes on the entire convoy of Triads in an even more breathtaking action sequence.
The sequence ends with Tony and Tequila coming to a Mexican standoff, and Tony spares Tequila because as an undercover agent, he cannot kill a cop. That’s right, he’s an undercover. (!) The film then conspires to bring the two together in an unofficial partnership so that Tequila will work from the outside whilst Tony works from the inside. Everything leads up to the epic conclusion in a packed hospital where Johnny has hidden his weapons cache. This really lasts for an insane amount of time. Woo goes beyond himself to pull every last stop including a must be seen to be believed three minute single take in the midst of all the chaos.
To top everything, in the middle of everything an entire ward of newborn babies must be evacuated. The inventiveness of this staging never lets up.
This film is so stylish, so well-crafted and so much damn fun that you don’t care about any logic. In this world, people are still killed needlessly, heroes bleed and feel pain, but a shotgun can be a portable cannon and one cop can take down an entire warehouse of Triads. Although the believability is stretched there is no one moment where you cannot say to yourself, “that just might be possible!”
The actors smoulder with emotions ingrained into their faces. These characters do serve the purpose of setting up the action, but unlike nearly every other action film they are defined characters rather than cardboard characterizations. They have real emotions and desires instead of cliches they live by.
This was my introduction to Hong Kong action cinema and for John Woo both his last HK film and to date last collaboration with Chow. (Can we ever get these two back together? Please!!!!!!!) It is thus a farewell of sorts, to a short lived kind of filmmaking that could blend fantasy and imagination effortlessly with realism and melodrama into a “heroic bloodshed“.
And there is little cooler in this world than Chow Yun-fat flying through the air with two blazing .45’s in slow motion. Come, enjoy yourself and be a bit of a 5 year old again for two hours.
EDITIONS: Hard Boiled has one of the worst home video histories of any film. Every edition is seriously flawed in some way. The first DVD release was by Criterion and is likely their worst catalog release. It is a port of the Laserdisc transfer, severely cropped, has subtitles based of the English dub, muted colors and very contrasty. There are some nice extras and a commentary track. This went out of print, for the Fox Lorber release which looks slightly better but is edge enhanced. The commentary is different, but with similar content. There are numerous foreign editions, some with great video, but these are all in either PAL format or lack English subtitles.
Currently the best way to see the film is through the Dragon Dynasty DVD and Blu-ray release. This transfer is based off of a European transfer, anamorphic 16:9 1.85:1, includes the original mono, the colors are relatively intact. Unfortunately the disc has English dubtitles. The transfer also appears to have been cropped and then stretched back to 1.85:1. The Blu-ray is merely a 1080p bump of the same master. Both can be had for around $10 and actually feature some extras. Still, it could be worse. (Like DD’s release of The Killer) If Criterion cannot ever get this back in the collection, maybe a Hong Kong release might come along that would actually be a decent transfer but I doubt it.
Buy it now. You will not regret it. Soon you’ll have seen it 20 times. I promise. You will get the score stuck in your head.
Especially “Sad Kong”. This serves primarily as Tony’s theme, but damn is it haunting.