John Woo delivers action and character depth yet again in this iconic Hong Kong crime film
“I told you to leave this case alone.”
It’s hard to figure out exactly what master of action direction John Woo is best known for. In the West, to a general moviegoing audience, it’s likely to be his Hollywood films like Mission Impossible 2 and the deliriously … delirious Face/Off. But narrowing it down to movies from his native Hong Kong, it’s likely to be this one – 1992’s Hard Boiled.
The story focuses around renegade cop, inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen (Chow Yun-fat), a loose cannon with a shoot-first attitude. He and his partner Benny (Bowie Lam) are staking out a teahouse, in order to catch a group of gun smugglers in the act. Things get awry pretty quickly, in a way only HK crime movies can, and after an incredible shoot-out, Benny lies dead. Furious, Tequila decides to exact vengeance on the gangsters responsible. This doesn’t gel with his superintendent (Philip Chan), who decides to take Tequila off the case.
Meanwhile, undercover cop Alan (Tony Leung) is struggling with his work in triad boss “Uncle” Hoi (Kwan Hoi-Shan), specifically with having to kill so many people on a regular basis. He makes origami cranes which he hangs in his houseboat for every person he’s had to kill. His skill is noticed by rival boss Wong (Anthony Wong), who attempts to recruit Alan and have him turn on Hoi. However, things get more complicated when Tequila shows up with a plan.
Hard Boiled is an absolute staple of modern Hong Kong action cinema. Its popularity in the West has turned it into something of a go-to example for anyone looking to get into Asian cinema. This is understandable; the story is straightforward, and the action takes up enough of the runtime that reading subtitles isn’t too much of a pain to anyone who isn’t used to it. This was John Woo’s final film before moving to Hollywood and while I don’t think Hard Boiled was created as a transition film, it certainly works well as one.
So let’s talk about the action, which John Woo and this film in particular, are known for. Everything in Hard Boiled is either a staple of action cinema, or it’s the forefather of one. John Woo uses and creates tropes you see everywhere, be it seriously or in parody and homage. Of course, Woo does it the best. His skill at filming flowing, easy-to-read shootouts is second to none. Woo can throw a dozen elements on screen – shrapnel, birds, blood, bodies, feathers, bullets, muzzle flash – and it remains perfectly legible, with none of the important factors obscured. This is one of the factors that sets him apart from other directors.
There are actions scenes roughly every twenty or so seconds (or at least it seems that way), and they’re all pretty lengthy. Arguably the entire second hour of the film is just one extended action sequence set in a hospital, but what stops it from getting boring is there’s variety. The changes in setting and the different character interactions mean that none of the sequences feel repetitive. There’s either a hostage situation to take care of, a baby to prevent from dying or simply an attempt to survive an ambush. What prevents these from getting tiring is that the characters in Hard Boiled matter, and that’s both a testament to writer Barry Wong and the actors.
Chow Yun-fat is naturally likeable, which is fortunate because it helps the audience attach themselves to Tequila instantly. Anthony Wong and Kwan Hoi-shan play some excellent villains, although they can be a bit standard at times. Wong here is still in his “typecast as the villain” phase of his career, but he does a lot with it. Teresa Mo is great as the often-ignored female officer Teresa, and brings a lot of levity to what would be an otherwise pretty heavy movie. But the strongest player in the game is Tony Leung, whose immense charisma and affability shines through as the tortured undercover cop. He plays it with sincerity and doesn’t do anything to make himself look “cool” in a film that’s fifty percent style. It’s perfect practise for his excellent turn in Infernal Affairs ten years later.
Frankly, there’s not much I can say about this movie that hasn’t been said already. It’s one of the great action films ever made, seamlessly blending violence, heart and cinematography. Hard Boiled is more than the sum of its parts, and certainly more than it appears to be from the front. Is it John Woo’s best film? Probably not. Red Cliff, which he’d make upon his return to Hong Kong, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer are all better films, but this doesn’t mean that Hard Boiled isn’t worthy of standing among the great HK films. It’s lasted as part of our shared pop culture and even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen the homages. It’s solidified itself within the bedrock of our action cinema, and that’s no small feat.
Verdict: Iconic, exciting and filled with great moments, Hard Boiled is one of those ones you have to watch if you’re into foreign or action film.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Violence: All the violence/10
Times It Feels Like a Videogame: Tonnes
Videogame Sequels: 1
Mad Dogs: Every film like this has one
Lasting impression: Sets expectations of what it’s like in a teahouse in Hong Kong
Hard Boiled (1992)
Also known as: 辣手神探
Director: John Woo
Writer: Barry Wong
Chow Yun-fat – Inspector “Tequila” Yuen
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai – Alan
Teresa Mo – Teresa Chang
Philip Chan – Supt. Pang
Kwan Hoi-Shan – Mr. Hoi
Philip Kwok – Mad Dog
Anthony Wong – Johnny Wong
Bowie Lam – Benny
Anjo Leung – Benny’s son
Bobby Au-Yeung – Lionheart
John Woo – Bartender