The Best Movie You Never Saw: Hard Boiled
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be examining John Woo’s HARD BOILED!
A hard-edged cop teams up with an undercover officer to take down a vicious mobster and his gang of ruthless thugs.
Written by John Woo and Barry Wong, the film was directed by Woo and starred his go-to guy, Chow Yun Fat as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen and Tony Leung as the undercover cop, Tony. Many of Hong Kong cinema’s favorite players make appearances as well, including Anthony Wong, Philip Chan, and Teresa Mo.
After completing the much-loved stylized action flicks A BETTER TOMORROW (1 & 2), BULLET IN THE HEAD, and perhaps his most famous Hong Kong film, THE KILLER, Woo decided to venture into new territory with HARD BOILED. After criticism that he portrayed gangsters as good guys, Woo decided to create a heroic tale with a lead that embodied his favorite classic cops like Clint Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY or Steve McQueen’s BULLITT, almost as an answer to the real-life rise in violence in Hong Kong at the time.
Woo cast his go-to star Chow Yun Fat as Tequila, a cop that built upon the Western tropes of the rogue, badass police officer. Working with writing partner Barry Wong, they originally devised a plot that would have Tequila go up against a psychopath who poisoned babies (again based on a real-life event), but they later abandoned the idea as too repugnant for Tony Leung’s character. This led to a production shutdown to find a new angle on the story, at which time screenwriter Barry Wong suddenly died, leaving the script half-finished.
The story then took on very different life, becoming more of a buddy-cop action flick as opposed to a DIRTY HARRY style crime film. The film shot for 123 days and continued to encounter issues throughout that time. Characters were cut, modified, and added throughout. Tequila’s relationship with Teresa Mo’s character was considerably cut down, while Philip Kwok took on the role of Mad Dog, a role created during filming to give Tequila and Tony a stronger villain to fight.
The film opened at TIFF in 1992, generating a massive buzz for the film, leading to a wider release in other markets. Most U.S. audiences didn’t discover the film until it’s DVD release in the late ‘90’s, which followed on the heels of Woo’s transition to Hollywood films HARD TARGET, BROKEN ARROW, and FACE/OFF.
HARD BOILED wasn’t as big a success in Hong Kong as some of Woo’s previous films, but became a critically acclaimed cult hit for western audiences. It currently sits at 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a film that eventually makes it’s was to burgeoning film geeks, often viewed as a staple of that diet, although is generally unknown to everyday viewers.
WHY IT’S GREAT:
Most of you have seen John Woo’s American films. Probably you enjoyed a few and probably you thought some of them were shit. I tend to agree there. I’m sure there’s a decent amount of you that may have seen THE KILLER as it was one of the first films to really garner him some notoriety. While many film geeks have seen HARD BOILED, it can be typically overlooked as many are more familiar with his U.S. films and simply "don't get" his allure as a result. We all know that Woo's signature has been ripped off by many a filmmaker since and it's important to recognize the origin of where it all began and, subsequently, came to full bloom.
I first discovered John Woo while watching MTV’s The Big Picture with Chris Connelly in 1993 where they talked about Woo’s first American film HARD TARGET. They showed a bunch of clips from HARD BOILED while discussing HARD TARGET and my mind was blown. These were the days before Internet or DVD (yep, I’m old) and all I wanted was to see this fantastic display of action artistry and I had nowhere to find such a thing. Years and years passed until I was finally able to see HARD BOILED on that new-fangled DVD technology and I was thoroughly changed from that point on.
By then, I’d already seen HARD TARGET (an underrated cheesy action gem, if you ask me) as well as BROKEN ARROW and FACE/OFF so I was already familiar with Woo’s style. However, nothing could have prepared me for the absolute rawness of HARD BOILED. It was unabashedly over the top and choreographed with the most beautiful display of action acrobatics I’d ever seen, far from the often scaled down versions we get in standard Hollywood action flicks.
The story is, in all honesty, merely a device that serves the action. Some may feel there’s more to it than that and I’m positive that a lot of the subtitled dialogue leaves some meaning lost in translation, but in the end it’s just a serviceable plot that revolves around Woo’s typical male-bonding shtick. And it’s fine. Chow Yun Fat squints like Dirty Harry, a toothpick in his mouth for most of the film and an attitude that rivals every rogue cop you’ve ever seen. But, it works perfectly on that level and opens the door for what we’re really there to see.
"Hey, x-rated action!" - Tequila (Chow Yun Fat), after shooting a bad guy while holding a baby.
The heart and soul of HARD BOILED and what makes it a stand out over the vast majority of action films is it’s unrelenting cavalcade of action scenes that never seem to run out of steam. Usually in the case of “too much action” you just start looking at your watch and wait for it to end. With HARD BOILED, it’s put on display like an action opera, Woo’s signature slow-mo sequences crafted with precision, leaving you mesmerized by the dancing of shell casings and debris with every gunshot and explosion.
If that sounds like I’m romanticizing it, well, I am. It’s the most romantic of all action movies, but not in a sexual way. This is the fantasy action movie that most of us made up in our heads when playing guns as kids: that time before you grew up and let reality slay your imagination, before you scoffed at the “that could never happen” moments and reveled in the pure bliss that is an action lover’s dream. HARD BOILED will entertain you in ways that most modern action films couldn’t touch for miles.
"Give a guy a gun, he thinks he's Superman. Give him two and he thinks he's God." - Superintendant Pang (Philip Chan)
When it comes to John Woo movies, HARD BOILED is king. I know some will argue for THE KILLER or possibly FACE/OFF. Those aren’t bad choices, either, but for me, HARD BOILED represents the absolute standard of his work, the complete and fully realized John Woo film. Even with big Hollywood budgets and stars Woo never catapulted beyond what he was able to accomplish with HARD BOILED. And, in truth, he didn’t have to. Although I’d love to see him return to the genre, I am happy to settle with HARD BOILED. Woo has already been scared away from U.S. films and seems wrapped up in making Hong Kong epics with swords instead of guns. And, that’s just fine, because at the end of the day he’s already put his crowning achievement in the bag. And it’s HARD BOILED.
The two key standout scenes in HARD BOILED are the warehouse battle and the hospital showdown at the end, which lasts for well over 40 minutes. It’s an exhaustive, relentless, and beautifully crafted series of action scenes. One such scene is a continuous shot sequence with Tequila and Tony, who go from one floor to an elevator and then down another hallways, encountering numerous bad guys. It’s one of many great scenes, but a perfect example of what to expect in the film for those who haven’t seen it yet.
HARD BOILED is available on blu-ray and DVD in a couple different variations. I recently picked up the blu-ray version and it’s a decent transfer with some solid additional features that provide more insight into the film. Get it here!
“HARD BOILED is one of my favorite films. I love all the action and I love the characters. But, I never realized that it was so popular. The movie made a lot of money and a lot of fame. I’m so glad that people love the movie. Y’know, since my prior movie, BULLET IN THE HEAD was a total failure and it didn’t make any money and it didn’t draw much attention, so HARD BOILED seems to be payback, so I am so glad." - John Woo (from an interview on the HARD BOILED blu-ray)
|Extra Tidbit:||The director's cut of Hard Target is a tremendous example of how Hollywood can castrate a filmmaker from his/her vision. I actually love the final product, but the director's cut of the film is way more Hard Boiled than you could imagine. If you're ever able to track it down you'll be in for a treat!|