HARD BOILED (1992)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Violence and some Language

(Cantonese with English subtitles)

Directed by: John Woo

Written by: Barry Wong

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Anthony Wong, Bowie Lam, Teresa Mo, Philip Chan, Philip Kwok & Bobby Au-Yeung

I’ve mentioned Brewvies Cinema Pub and their monthly Kung Fu Theater nights on this blog before. For those who are new to the site, haven’t stumbled across those reviews or just need a quick refresher, Utah has a cinema pub (called Brewvies)…and they’re awesome…and they run monthly Kung Fu screenings. For May 2017’s Kung Fu Theater, the selection was something out of the ordinary. Instead of going with the usual chopsocky fare, Brewvies decided to screen one of John Woo’s most famous action films: HARD BOILED. I’ve only seen two of Woo’s films (FACE/OFF and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2), so I had no idea what to expect from his pre-Hollywood material. Turns out, HARD BOILED is awesome!

Officer Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) is a loose-cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules. After his partner is gunned down in a teahouse shooting, Tequila decides to put his grief-stricken vengeance to good use by investigating an arms-dealing crime syndicate. Coincidentally, undercover cop Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has just joined the ranks of this weapons-heavy gang…which is under the leadership of greasy-haired, colorful-shirt-wearing scumbag Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong). On separate quests for redemption and justice, Tequila and Alan will come face-to-face and possibly band together to take down Wong’s crime empire. Lots of explosions, bodies, bullets, and babies-in-peril follow!

John Woo seems to have a knack for shooting action in a beautifully stylized way. That certainly comes across in HARD BOILED’s many gun fights and confrontations. Beautiful cinematography brings a unique atmosphere to the familiar cops-and-criminals proceedings from the very first scene. This continues as the bullet-ridden chaos is captured in a creative way. People leap through windows/cars and take cover behind anything they can find, all while Woo focuses on the carefully executed action in a way where the audience can see who is shooting at whom (an effect that’s frequently muddled in today’s shaky-cam-heavy action scenes).

Woo’s directing talent comes to a head in one of the best action scenes ever captured on film, an unbroken single-take shoot-out through the hallways of a hospital. This is made even more impressive when you consider how each stunt and special effect needed to be right on its mark or the illusion would instantly be shattered. The editing also helps ratchet up suspense as Woo frequently cuts from one conversation/scene to the action that’s taking place or about to take place. The best example of this comes in a boathouse shoot-out that shows a mysterious stranger with a shotgun approaching…all while two conversing characters are oblivious to this person’s existence.

As far as characters go, Woo packs a colorful bunch into this fast-paced actioner. Besides the side characters of a “kindly” old mob boss (Kwan Hoi-Shan), a pissed-off superintendent (Philip Chan, who was an actual police officer for 15 years), and a love-interest/baby-saver (Teresa Mo), there are four big performances worth diving into. The two heroes of the picture are Chow Yun-Fat as Inspector Tequila and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Alan. The chemistry between these two polar-opposite partners is convincing and fun to watch. Yun-Fat takes on the biggest bad-ass role as Hong Kong’s equivalent of Dirty Harry, always chewing a toothpick and coping an attitude. Meanwhile, Leung-Chi’s Alan is a sensitive guy in a tough spot, making cranes for every person he kills on his quest for justice.

The main villains of the piece present a formidable challenge for the pair. Anthony Wong plays playboy-type Triad boss Johnny Wong, who wears colorful shirts, seems like a smug bastard, and has a mean streak. This makes for a baddie who you want to see killed in the most painful way possible. More interestingly, Philip Kwok damn near steals the show as Wong’s psychotic henchman Mad Dog. Mad Dog doesn’t speak much during the first half, but makes a strong impression through being an utter bad-ass baddie (throwing grenades instead of shooting bullets and lighting his cigarette on a burning car). Mad Dog’s later fight scenes against Alan and Tequila are easily my favorite moments of the film.

I love HARD BOILED, but it has a couple of nitpicky flaws. These come in a few of Woo’s stylistic choices that don’t add much to the proceedings and occasionally detract from smaller dialogue-driven moments. Of course, Woo would be one to use slow-motion in his action scenes, but this slow-motion seems a tad “off.” Maybe that’s my modern sensibilities nagging me, but I felt the slow-motion didn’t make the action scenes any cooler in this film (they were already awesome to begin with). Also, there are freeze frames during the first half that frequently end scenes. It feels like Woo didn’t really know how to use engaging transitions and so he constantly freezes the frame and then fades into another scene. It’s not a huge complaint, but this had a sitcom-like vibe to it.

Aside from two tiny nitpicks, HARD BOILED is a damn near masterpiece of its genre. The characters are memorable, the action is nuts, and the high stakes constantly get higher (like a room full of babies in a gun-filled environment). There are intentional laughs to be had, alongside adrenaline-pumping action sequences, a stellar eye behind the camera, and a never-ending sense of entertainment. HARD BOILED is a must-see for fans of action movies!

Grade: A