Action movies were the first genre of movies that really captured my imagination. When I was a wee lad, explosions, gunfire, and karate chops were the quickest ways for a movie to make it’s way into my heart. Regardless of the quality of the action, let alone the rest of the movie, if there was action to be had I would eat it up. Now that I’m a little older and a lot grumpier, action movies have to earn their respect from me. I’m a lot more critical of movies than in my youth, and shit like Tak-three-n doesn’t fly with me anymore. While I still like to think I have a childlike enamoring to big explosions and loud, dumb action in movies, the execution of these juvenile films is of equal importance to me now.
Hard Boiled is a Hong Kong action flick written and directed by the legendary John Woo (The Killer, Hard Target, Mission: Impossible II, Face/Off) starring Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and Tony Leung (Hero). Hard Boiled is widely considered one of the greatest action movies of all time, even being inducted into the Criterion Collection because a movie where Chow Yun-Fat soars through the air blowing up a thug on a dirt bike with a well placed shotgun blast is considered to be at the same level of cinematic brilliance that Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are.
Hard Boiled follows Inspector Tequila (yes, really) played by Yun-Fat, a gritty cop from the streets tasked with taking down a local gang of Triads. Tequila is ruthless and unorthodox in his policing, butting heads with his chief whenever he’s out on a mission. Along the way, he runs into Alan (Leung), another cop who has been deep under cover with the Triads, slowly moving his way up the ranks. Together, they team up to investigate the Triad gun smuggling operation in Hong Kong. Tequila wants the Triads dead, but Alan needs to keep his cover so that he can bring them down from the inside. Tensions rise between the police and the Triads, and many, many, many bullets are exchanged along the way.
I’ve always heard of how insane Hard Boiled is as an action film, and how it embodies everything John Woo does as a filmmaker. I absolutely love Face/Off for many reasons (dual-wielding guns, Cage and Travolta, doves flying out behind characters, etc.) so I was hyped to check out what is widely considered John Woo’s best movie (although many say The Killer is his best work). Amidst modern action masterpieces like The Raid: Redemption (and it’s inferior but still great sequel) and Mad Max: Fury Road, how does Hard Boiled measure up to those all-you-can-eat buffets of bullets, car chases, and martial arts?
Hard Boiled seems like it was written by an eight year old, and I mean that in the best way possible. Woo throws away logic and sometimes physics just so he can forge scenes so dense with action and violence that you’re constantly staring wide-eyed at the screen for one reason or another. Hard Boiled is a movie of pure excess, and it revels in it. It’s like a game of Grand Theft Auto when you have a five star wanted rating, then turn on the God Mode and Unlimited Ammo cheats. The story is paper thin, and while the characters are somewhat developed, the movie stands proudly on its giant action set-pieces. There’s enough plot going around to offer some breathing room and release of tension in the film, but Woo understands that he’s an action director, not a police drama director, so he keeps any scene without a gun as short and efficient as possible.
Once the violence kicks up in the film, things break into mayhem. Many of the scenes are huge in scale, from the tea house shootout to the warehouse raid, all the way until the hospital shootout/ raid/ hostage situation/ evacuation that occupies the entire third act of the movie. These scenes have tons of moving parts, dozens of actors and stuntmen, vehicles, explosives on set– the whole thing is one big, choreographed dance in bloodshed. I feel like when Woo was planning out these scenes, the writing process was just creating a big list of events, characters, and actions titled “THINGS I THINK ARE WICKED SWEET AND SHOULD BE IN MY MOVIE”. While many of these scenes are crammed full of things happening all over the frame, it never feels bloated or overwhelming. Woo is able to direct the audience’s attention fairly well, keeping us focused on the important details in the shot. Everything else is there to help immerse us in the action, or to provide some extra cool little stunts and tricks to see upon repeat viewings, when we aren’t completely tied up with the main story.
I’ve only recently become familiar with the cinematic language of action movies, and from the way I’ve described Hard Boiled, I’m sure it sounds just like pure chaos on screen that’s impossible to follow. Fortunately for us, John Woo is a great director. He has a great sense of geography and blocking (#buzzwords), which is incredibly important when directing a cinematic gunfight. We, the audience need to know who is shooting at who, where they are in relation to each other, and where they are in relation to any other people, objects, or parts of the environment that are relevant to the scene. Just cutting frantically between actors grimacing, closeups of their guns, and dutch angles of bodies falling isn’t exciting film making. It’s confusing. Woo always establishes the who, what, and where of a scene thoroughly, and if any of those qualities change, he makes sure to show it explicitly through either wide shots or interesting angles that show us a new perspective on the fight, feeding us the information that a character or object has moved in relation to another. Despite being adrenaline-fueled havoc, it’s controlled so well behind the scenes that we can always easily follow along.
My only real gripe with Hard Boiled is that Woo relies almost completely on guns to help carry the action. Guns in movies are sweet, but even firearm-heavy movies like Commando have action scenes without a single bullet in them. I wish Hard Boiled included some hand-to-hand combat or martial arts in it to change things up, because I’m sure Woo has the capacity to film it, and the constant gunfire is a little grating after two straight hours. The gunfights in the movie are good enough to carry the whole film, but I think Hard Boiled would be elevated to an even higher status if it included fistfights as well directed and choreographed as the shootouts. I’m thinking of a specific example here. If in the hospital shootout, Hard Boiled broke out into a fight where Tequila and Alan fought Mad Dog like the big two-on-one fight in The Raid (which also, funnily enough involves a villain named Mad Dog) and maybe there were some other fistfights sprinkled throughout, Hard Boiled would be a near perfect action movie.
Overall, I loved Hard Boiled. It’s a little dated, but it’s tons of fun and the action is so well executed that it doesn’t matter that a couple of the performances aren’t great and some of the dialogue is choppy. Woo definitely crafted something special, and even though the only action in the film is gun fights, he’s able to keep it engaging with interesting locations and on-point cinematography all throughout the movie. I don’t know if Hard Boiled would be considered one my favorite action movie of all time, but it’s definitely in the Top 10. I’d consider this required watching for anyone who likes over-the-top action flicks.