I remember first seeing this movie on the rack and thinking it just looked silly. But Hard Boiled ended up being on of those classic films that forever changed my taste in movies.
Hard Boiled was one of those classic films, like Evil Dead 2, that I just stumbled onto in the video store and that forever changed my taste in movies. I remember first seeing the box on the rack and thinking that the movie just looked silly. I think what finally won me over was the fact that I had run out of “Youth Restricted” movies to rent, and this was one of the last ones that I hadn’t yet seen. Like Evil Dead 2, I ended up watching this one so many times that I gave the VCR a serious run for its money. The action was so unlike anything I’d ever seen before, with the fast grace of martial arts mixed with the gun battles of 80’s shoot ‘em ups. I showed it to all my friends, and still try to do so if I find out that people I know haven’t seen it.
Hard Boiled fits into the unique Hong Kong sub genre called “heroic bloodshed.” This was a genre John Woo created with the 1986 film A Better Tomorrow, also with Chow Yun Fat, and one that he mastered with this film. Woo, along with director Ringo Lam and others, created bloody action films that dealt with gangs and police with their own code of ethics…and with lots of guns. It’s not unusual in these films to see 20 people get killed and then immediately the two killers discuss their inner demons and girl troubles amid the sea of dead. Crime bosses are loaded with armies of henchmen that are only there to be killed by the heroes. Everyone also uses every type of firearm imaginable, and guns rarely need reloading. Because of the fast-paced style, these films have often been labled “gun fu.”
With Hard Boiled, John Woo helped not only put Hong Kong on the film map but he, along with the endlessly charismatic Chow Yun Fat, created the ultimate movie badass in the character of Tequila. How can you not love a guy that plays clarinet in a jazz bar then kills dozens of people within minutes? And his name’s Tequila! Through the intense action, Woo laid the groundwork for the way action would be shot in the US and other countries. Yes, this movie is one of the reasons films like Hitman exist, but all the greats create hundreds of cheap stupid knockoffs, right?
The movie opens with an amazing shootout in an old fashioned Hong Kong teahouse. Tequila is after a suspect in an arms case and will literally do anything to get his man. Shots are fired over and over again, and after about the fifteenth death in the first 10 minutes, you realize that this action is as over the top as possible – that’s when director Woo really starts to have fun. He manages to mix violent gunplay, honor, and humor in a way that no other heroic bloodshed movies ever managed. He somehow convinces us to take these people seriously, even when they fire rocket launchers at each other, or drive around in fast cars bobbing their heads to bad 80’s music. The action is so good and the motivations so varied that it works on many levels. Woo will set up a conflict, building up emotional tension before resolving it in these massive action set pieces where at least 50 people will be killed. And he’ll make you care about the killers, which is a pretty amazing feat.
Tony Leung plays an undercover cop who is in so deep that he’s in danger of losing his identity. Leung is an amazing actor and steals every scene that he’s in. He conveys so much through his face and definitely raises the movie to another level. Early on, Leung is forced to betray one crime boss for another, killing his old boss in cold blood before we even find out that he’s a cop. There is a layer of ambiguity in his performance that holds the film together in a way that didn’t exist in action films at the time. Leung and Yun Fat make a great pair, and are so good that it creates an odd mix of high drama and action. The American equivalent would be like watching Sean Penn and Johnny Depp team up for a Commando remake.
Also, for fans of old school kung fu, keep an eye out for Kuo Chui (The Lizard from Five Deadly Venoms) as crime boss Johnny’s lead henchman. And check out John Woo himself as the owner of the jazz club where Tequila plays.
This movie came out in 1992, and I still haven’t seen another film top its ridiculous bloodshed. The only thing that comes close are video games, and even those haven’t yet been able to deliver a story with quite the same mix of honor and humor. Definitely check this one out as soon as possible.
For those curious about heroic bloodshed, here are some more films worth seeking out: