There was a time when no one filmed a gunfight like John Woo. Calling him a director is less apt than calling him a choreographer, as his films’ action scenes recall carefully staged dance numbers where music is replaced with the sounds of gunfire and the actors exhibit the grace and fluidity of ballerinas. It’s hard not to sit transfixed, guffawing at the outrageousness — and elegance — of it all. The violence in Woo’s films is often just as beautiful as it is painful to watch.
“Hard-Boiled,” made in 1992, is Woo’s magnum opus, the last film he made in Hong Kong before fleeing to the United States as reunification with China drew near. It’s the film that best exemplifies his penchant for turning what could have been standard “big-car-go-boom” action set-pieces into stunning displays of color, sound and movement. But more importantly, it’s damn fun.
Woo’s most famous leading man, Chow Yun-Fat (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) plays Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, a cop from the Clint Eastwood School of Shoot First, Talk Later. He’s cool, he’s tough and he’s bad at taking orders. When his partner is killed in a shootout with gangsters, he sets off on a quest for revenge that inadvertently endangers the life of an undercover cop (Tony Leung) working for one of the men responsible, slimy gun-smuggler Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong). Eventually the two cops pair up and the result is a climactic showdown with the Triads that turns a hospital into a war zone.
Now, it must be admitted that “Hard-Boiled” is ridiculous. Scenes of vicious bloodshed are spliced with moments of syrupy light-heartedness, like when Chow takes a break from plugging holes in bad guys’ heads to care for a frightened infant, who promptly pees on his leg. But the film is so visceral it doesn’t matter. Sometimes running full-force, sometimes stumbling, it nevertheless always manages to reach the next level of outrageousness, culminating in a trance-inducing climax.
Here, Woo does what only a select few directors could ever do: turn a typical piece of genre fare into art without alienating its core audience. “Hard-Boiled” is raucous, fast-paced and entertaining, but it also manages to transcend its place as a mere exploitation piece, even wowing critics who would pan similar films.
The film is also a fantastic showcase for Chow, the kind of lead who takes a flatly-written role like “Tequila” and turns it into a character who is nothing short of mythical. The movie wouldn’t be half as good without him, as he emanates the kind of effortless cool other action stars couldn’t achieve had they doused themselves in Arctic water. When he slides down a banister, guns blazing in both hands, it’s like witnessing the second coming of Steve McQueen.
But this is first and foremost a John Woo film, and the action scenes are what make “Hard-Boiled” the masterpiece it is. The oft-noted climax is the obvious centerpiece (it takes up the entire second half of the film, after all), but the opening scene, set in a traditional Hong Kong teahouse, is really what perfectly captures the — pardon the pun — explosiveness of Woo’s style. It combines striking imagery with eye-wincing nastiness at its pinnacle when Chow, covered in flour, is splattered with bright-red blood after shooting a gangster in the head. It just goes to show that even the basest of genre films can be elevated to a higher level by a filmmaker with vision to spare.