Review: Hard Boiled (1992: John Woo: Hong Kong)

“I may be crazy but I’m not a monster.” – John Woo

Chinese title 辣手神探 which is a rough translation of: Ruthless Super Cop or Spicy Hand Smart Detective; this was the same Chinese title used for Dirty Harry (1971).

This movie is an end of an era. The last directed movie Woo would make with Chow Yun-fat.  The last movie he would make before heading to Hollywood with the 1997 handover looming over the Hong Kong landscape.  He would have a mixture of success in the US and then a mixture of success in China (though Red Cliff is indeed awesome) and then came Manhunt (which has not helped his reputation; alas I have not seen), but he will most likely be known for his period between A Better Tomorrow and this film.  Coincidentally, this was part of the beginning of my journey into Hong Kong film and John Woo.  I first rented this from a local video store (Video Park) which lead into me buying the VHS.  I know have several DVDs, including several OOP Criterions, and a BD. 

After the introductory scene of jazz (Woo states it is the first film to use jazz in Hong Kong, I am sure it is the first film where Lionel Richie is quoted — “Hello”), and the drink combination tequila and soda (Woo got this from Sam Peckinpah) you are lulled into the serenity of the music and into one of one of my favorite shoot-outs of all-time.  Here is a scene that I often show people to get them into John Woo. 

When you have two cops, one that is a famous actor and one that is not you know that one of them will not survive long especially since he has a good relationship with his wife.  Add in birdcages (avian flu discontinued this practice), guns, more guns, two-fisted guns, Uzis, people getting shot for no reason, a Sam Peckinpah homage, blood, a toothpick, and everyone running amok, and it makes a beautiful introduction to Hong Kong action cinema for those new to it.  This prologue was filmed before the script was finished (also the scriptwriter Barry Wong died before filming was complete) and it really does operate on its own.  It could be a short.  The filmmakers only had a few days before the demolition of the building (named Wan Loy at the time now it is the Langham Place) in Mongkok and the results are a kinetic frenzy of apoplectic beauty. 

Woo is a “fully functioning homicidal artist.”

John Woo created a Hong Kong Dirty Harry meets Frank Bullitt in the main character of Tequila.  Add in that Chow Yun-fat is a surrogate for John Woo (Woo is not as handsome, but Chow is Woo’s idealized self), plus the ability to play the clarinet and you have this super cop.  This cop that is equally adept at rappelling into a gunfight as he is in protecting a baby.  When he accidentally kills a cop – he gets over it.  He makes a toothpick seem menacing.  I started chewing a toothpick because of this movie.  He is great at so many things, except for his relationship (Harry Callahan could never keep a relationship either or a partner) with a fellow C.I.D. officer Teresa Chang (Teresa Mo) and his relationship with his chief Pang (former real-life policeman Phillip Chan) with another allusion to Dirty Harry.  I do love that he has a mentor at The Jazz Club played by John Woo where surrogate Woo is being mentored by the literal Woo.  Tequila has had one issue added – the death of his partner.  He is going to get revenge no matter what the consequences.

To play off Chow’s honorable character is Alan where Tony Leung summons Alain Delon (it is even in the name), especially in Le Samouraï. Some of the scenes on his boat are a reference from the beautifully languid beginning of that movie. He is an undercover cop that walks a tightrope on both sides (a very popular theme in Triad movies ala Infernal Affairs) and he is losing his balance as he could lose his life from either side.  Each life he takes he creates an origami crane (the irony is that the bird represents longevity, something that Alan has interrupted for a vast amount of people).  With Leung you can see the internal loneliness in his eyes and in the way he walks.  He is a gifted actor and he can fit in everything from a John Woo film to a Wong Kar-wai movie like In the Mood for Love (2000).

Woo adds two more thematic characters, for four archetypes, to the mix: an antagonist with a code-of-honor (Mad Dog played by Phillip Kwok) and his boss the main antagonist with no honor (Johnny Wong played by Anthony Wong).  Like in a Johnnie To film the people with no honor are despised.  Mad Dog does not like the way Alan had sold out his boss.  He would have died first.  He has that samurai sense of loyalty to the retainer Johnny Wong.  Wong has no such compunctions.  He is the chaotic evil.  He wants to take over the illegal weapons smuggling trade.  He had to go through Alan’s boss Uncle Hoi who seems to be hurting the illegal market with his low, low prices.  Obviously Hoi had to go and Alan had to make a choice. He chose life for himself and death for Hoi.    

Alan has to remain undercover while a somewhat rogue cop in Tequila might just kill him while keeping from being killed by Wong.  Expect gunfire, things blowing up really good and homosocial relationships while the killing commences – a John Woo film.

Woo was fed up with the rising crime rate in Hong Kong and Hard Boiled parallels Dirty Harry (a Dredd-style cop in San Francisco during a time of very high crime and a city that has a reputation to be lax on illegality).  In addition to so many filmmakers in Hong Kong at the time there was this anxiousness about the 1997 Handover to China.  It permeates this work like so much of Hong Kong cinema at the time.  The hospital is an amalgam of all of this.  He calls it “a microcosm of society.”  The babies are the hope and future of Hong Kong.  The patients are the innocent.  The basement represents a corruption of the system from underneath. 

I do wonder if what happened to the hospital is what Woo expected to happen to Hong Kong.  The analogy seems to be saying you are going to have to get out of Hong Kong or perish. 

I love this movie.  The action is mesmerizing.  The ending scenes in the hospital almost dominate the film.  Included in it is an almost three-minute sequence (almost uncut) which is one of the highlights of action cinema (it makes me think of the opening to Johnnie To’s 7-minute tracking shot in Breaking News and the excellent Steadicam sequence in Tom Yum Goong).  Woo’s somewhat disregard for his actor’s safety is shown here.  Phillip Kwok gets burned.  Chow Yun-fat gets burned (Chow lost some hearing during A Better Tomorrow 2 when he was way too close to an explosion).  Tony Leung had real glass shattered into his eyes and he had to take almost a week off. Terence Chang had to have the use of explosives cut down.Woo can be a mad man when he is filming. 

It is Woo’s themes of loyalty, betrayal, and redemption that have me loving his movies like one of Woo’s favorite filmmakers Jean-Pierre Melville.  Along with Melville and To Woo explores masculine themes of honor among cops and organized crime.  He has the need to constantly push himself and to outdo previous movies. For example, in A Better Tomorrow he has an iconic scene of Chow Yun-fat lighting his cigarette with a 100-dollar bill.  What he has Phillip Kwok do here with a cigarette is awesome.  Where do you go from here though?

If you like action, if you like explosives, if you like movies I do think you will like this.  If you consider yourself an action connoisseur than I know you have already seen this.  I consider it one of the greatest action films of all-time and it led me into the wonderful wide world of Hong Kong movies. 

The hard question should not be whether to watch this, but to ask yourself what is better: The Killer or Hard Boiled? And should I do an overlong essay on The Killer?   

1. Thanks to Ethan Collins-McGuire for proofreading and suggestions.  All errors are mine.
Woo has stated that the French film Farewell, Friend (aka Honor Among Thieves) as an influence.  I have not seen it to comment on its influence.
2. The use of vertical line wipes reminds me of Akira Kurosawa, a director that has been a big influence on John Woo.
3. Woo’s use of slow-motion is influenced by both Chang Cheh and Sam Peckinpah.
4. Michael Gibb’s English release of the soundtrack
5. Spoiler: analogous to Martin Scorsese’s original end in After Hours (the character was going to die), Woo had his mind changed by the crew who did not want Alan to perish.
Beyond the scope of this essay: one can find so many connections with the themes and characters in John Woo’s crime films.
6. Normally he does not like second unit filming.  Had to use several units on this film because he was overbudget and over the scheduled time.

“A Baptism of Fire: A Featurette with Iconic Director John Woo” on Hardboiled Two-Disc Ultimate Edition Dragon Dynasty (2007)
“Partner in Crime: An Interview with Producer Terence Chang” on Hardboiled Two-Disc Ultimate Edition Dragon Dynasty (2007)
Commentary: John Woo, Terence Chang on Hard Boiled Fox Lorber R1 (2000): Seriously this is a good commentary.  I took notes throughout.
HKMDB: a great database for Hong Kong movies.
Twitter: teahouse tweet @Old Macau Archives:

At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World, ed. Esther C. M. Yau, pg. 89–90.  “Aesthetics in Action: Kung Fu, Gunplay, and Cinematic Expressivity” by David Bordwell
Hollywood East(2000) by Stefan Hammond: Improves writeup on Hard Boiled compared to his previous book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head.
The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997 (2000) by John Charles: he gives it a 9/10.  He clocks the one-cut sequence in the hospital at 2 minutes and 42 seconds.
John Woo: The Films (1999) by Kenneth E. Hall: if you are a fan of John Woo this is a must own book.  There is a second edition of this book which I do not own yet.
John Woo Interviews (2005) edited by Robert K. Elder: this is a must own if you are into Woo.  There is section on the Criterion releases’ s commentary.
Planet Hong Kong 2nd Edition (2011) by David Bordwell: read his comments on the techniques used in the filming of this (pg. 70-71, 142-143, 149).
Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head (1996) by Stefan Hammond & Mike Wilkins: says the teahouse is the Wyndham Teahouse, which appears to be wrong. I have two sources on this, the Hard Boiled Location Guide on the Dragon Dynasty DVD gives a different name, and the same name is mentioned in Old Macau Archives tweet.  But still a good read on the film.

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