PerfAction returns with the greatest action flick you’ve (probably) never heard of…
Dir: John Woo
Original Release Date: 16 April 1992Part of ILT’s PerfAction# series.
If Hard Boiled isn’t on your list of greatest action films, one can only assume you’re yet to experience it. Such a predicament should, of course, be rectified as soon as possible. Any prolonged decision to the contrary will serve only to mar your future enjoyment of the genre, as they’ll always be a lingering doubt as to whether you’ve truly witnessed that perfectly located sweet spot between the ridiculous and the sublime. John Woo’s Hong Kong directorial swansong is the very definition of this rarely achieved cinematic balance; complete with a classic storyline of cops verses gangsters, bona fide local and international stars (Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung), and outstanding technical accomplishments in the form multiple, seemingly never-ending balls-to-the-wall action set pieces.
The first of many smacks across the face during Hard Boiled is its overwhelmingly eighties vibe. Despite officially being shot and released in early-nineties, it’s effectively a last hurrah for both the outright mental action flicks of the previous decade, and the glorious golden era of the Hong Kong-specific heroic bloodshed genre. Greedy gangsters, grizzled regular cops, conflicted undercover cops, disagreeable superiors, loud suits, sunglasses-worn-indoors-purely-so-they-can-be-removed-in-dramatic-fashion, a one-eyed villain, unlimited ammunition (except for when the chamber’s conveniently empty :o ), big guns and even bigger explosions; layered between shallow, in-your-face themes of honour, loyalty, betrayal, and sacrifice – it’s all here all right. The eighties was also the decade during which action composers discovered the steel drum. Henceforth it was treated – along with the synth, and, on occasion, brass – like the second coming of movie-scoring Christ. Hard Boiled adheres to this stipulation, and it fits as snugly as a shell in a pump-action 12-Gauge.
The basic story sets everything up with minimal fuss. The triads are smuggling and selling arms in and around Hong Kong. Detective “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-fat) is formally heading up the investigation, leading him to ruthless mob boss, Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong), while internally conflicted undercover cop, Alan* (Tony Leung), juggles gaining the confidence of Johnny with the task of trying to break the case from the inside. Whereas the plot is tightly focused in order to get us from one action scene to another, the major advantage is that Chow and Leung are great actors in their own right; exhibiting immense charisma and charm throughout. Almost every scene contains one or the other (or both), and the non-action scenes are all the better for it, in spite of the classic tendency for subtitled Hong Kong action dialogue to border on comical at times. *Random side note: Leung’s character has never been referred to as “Alan” in either version I own. Instead, he goes by Tony or Long respectively – pay your money, make your choice.
Of course, without genuine quality in the action department to back them up, such aspects would have done little more than contribute to the so-bad-it’s-good mentality associated with the majority of the period’s nostalgia-tinted action movies. As its PerfAction label suggests, however, Hard Boiled makes the grade. The structure is built around four extended shootouts; the opening teahouse battle, the warehouse demolition, the failed yacht assassination attempt, and the quite frankly insane hospital-based finale. Each hinges on tight, free-flowing gunfights, brought together by all of Woo’s signature methods. It’s bizarre to think that something as simple as having both the shooter(s) and the target(s) in the same frame, at close quarters no less, would make a shot both all the more hard-hitting and aesthetically pleasing. Having said that, Hollywood’s style was very different at that time, with such a brutal tactic rarely employed (Hong Kong cinema expert, Bey Logan, puts this down to censorship issues). As well as consistently great use of all-angle static shots, evidently planned with one eye firmly on editing, Hard Boiled demonstrates Woo’s sixth sense for camera movement – particularly extended takes and tracking shots. A stream of Steadicam manoeuvres build up to a masterful single 2.40+ handheld take, whisking us through numerous explosive hospital corridors amongst a hail of bullets. The shot alone makes the film worth watching, and has rightly become a cult favourite in technical cinematic history.
Physical effects, such as ‘power powder’ – the use of powder-based props or powder on clothing to emphasise a strike – further boost the flying and slamming impact of actors and stuntmen alike, all without a hint of CGI. The brutality of the stunt work itself helps emphasise the fantastic timing required simultaneously by those in front of, and behind the camera, especially when the grandiose scale of certain shots, particularly during the warehouse shootout, is taken into account. Another example of how we’re made to feel each moment of individual blast-to-blast power is the use of sets and sound. Shit blows up here, for real – cars, walls, people – and I don’t mean in the traditional manner, I mean with every shot fired. The insanely loud, overly explosive nature of the shotgun may undoubtedly be exaggerated to the point of drawing genuine mirth, but it more than suits the over-the-top nature of the production.
Whenever I discuss industry-defining action films, I always harp on about no shot being wasted and the editing being top notch, but each aspect related to these sentiments really does make a monumental difference to the final cut. Between an opening barrage of machinegun fire and the moment the final shell casing falls, some of the action scenes are, in theory, pretty damn long. In reality, however, they don’t feel long, and certainly don’t drift into the unwanted realm of boring. The editing is skilful enough to break them up – a chance to reload here, some expository dialogue there, ducking behind cover, and so on and so forth. It’s difficult to stress just how good Woo and his team were at all this during their peak years – even on a minimal budget – and Hard Boiled is a classic example.
Sure, it wasn’t as successful as A Better Tomorrow (1986), as rounded slash complete as The Killer (1989), and was produced on a budget far lower than those of Woo’s later Hollywood flicks, such as Face/Off (1997). But when raw action is the sole benchmark, Hard Boiled is easily one of, if not the finest of Woo’s pictures. The only way to do it justice is to watch it. Or re-watch it. See you in two hours.