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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series: Hard Boiled (1992)

•A-Ron Takes You Back In Time To 1992 To Revisit John Woo’s Masterpiece “Hard Boiled”, Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung.


Twenty six years ago Hong Kong cinema received a milestone in action films. “Hard Boiled” brought John Woo to the point where he is considered by many to be the ultimate action director. “Hard Boiled”, also known as ‘Hot-Handed God of Cops’, ‘Ruthless Super-Cop’ and by it’s original Cantonese title – ‘Lashou Shentan’, is at the top of the genre as one of the definitive action films. It’s ultra violent, jam packed with flying bullets and showcases the talents of Chow Yun-Fat, long considered one of the biggest names of Asian action films. 

Nobody makes movies like John Woo, especially action movies and “Hard Boiled” proves that. So much so that when the “Muscles From Brussels” Jean-Claude Van Damme wanted to give his own action pictures a quality boost in the United States, he turned to the veteran Chinese filmmaker, offering John Woo the film “Hard Target” (produced by “Evil Dead” director Sam Raimi) to mark his American film-making debut. “Hard Target” set the way for John Woo to take on bigger projects in America. He followed it up with “Broken Arrow”, “Face/Off”, “Mission Impossible 2”, “WindTalkers” and the Ben Affleck thriller “Paycheck”. 

If you’re hungry for vintage Woo, and want to see his trademark eye popping Hong Kong thrills and stylistic, balletic violence, you can’t do better than his masterpiece “Hard Boiled.” Woo regular Chow Yun-Fat, the Clint Eastwood of Hong Kong stars as Tequila who is a “Hard Boiled” cop who loses his partner in a shoot-out with gun smugglers. In order to bring them down, Tequila must team up with an undercover cop named Tony (played by the great Tony Leung), who goes undercover as a hired gun with a Hong Kong triad, which is run by a vicious boss named Johnny Wong.

Woo’s original crime dramas “A Better Tomorrow”, “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled” are considered his masterpieces and with good reason. John Woo’s poetically violent action sequences are his trademark, and “Hard Boiled” features three stunning examples. The opening sequence takes place in a tearoom filled with birdcages. Tequila packs guns in both hands (a John Woo trademark) and blasts his way through the tea house. It’s a crackling way to begin the film, and Tequila’s strength is established, and Woo gives us a taste of what we are in for. 

The second big action setpiece is set in a warehouse. Johnny Wong’s gang raids the opposition’s arsenal. They descend upon the warehouse as a vicious pack on motorcycles. Again, the action is chaotic. The third major action sequence (that took 40 days to shoot) happens in a hospital and stretches over most of the film’s second half, with a forty minute sequence. Woo gives his heroes plenty of obstacles to overcome, placing the climax in a medical hospital. Some of the scenes in the hospital are shocking because the violence spills into places we aren’t used to seeing it go, such as a maternity ward full of new born babies. The violence is raw as innocent patients are gunned down. It’s another bravura display of action choreography from the house of Woo. He balances the reprehensible actions of the gang with the protective nature of the police but doesn’t let it dip into exploitation. 

More than 200 guns were used in the film, all of which were real. Due to Hong Kong’s strict gun laws, the weapons had to be imported specially from England and inspected by the HK police before they could be used on set. The production also had to import a substantial quantity of blank ammunition; in total, over 100,000 rounds of blank ammunition would be fired during the filming of the movie. That explains the 307 body count in the movie. 

“Hard Boiled” has some of the best action sequences and shoot outs I’ve ever seen bar none, and with choreography by Phillip Kwok, the gun fights between officers and criminals is like a ballet. With a John Woo film you are always assured entertainment, but you are always guaranteed wonderful gunfights, and “Hard Boiled” has plenty. Woo includes emotional rhythms so the audience can get involved on more than just a visceral level. And he understands the geography of each sequence, so that he can move his camera through three-dimensional space without any confusion. The action sequences here are beautiful, complex and explosive. 

The film essentially combines the moody hard-edged cop aesthetic of a “Dirty Harry” film with the crass off the wall action of films like “Die Hard”. The combination is immeasurably intoxicating as Chow Yun-Fat blasts his way through countless baddies. 

Woo indulges in several long, intricately choreographed takes, while the camera follows Tequila and Tony down hallways and into various rooms, as they blow bad guys away right and left, running, leaping and diving into the action. “Hard Boiled” accomplishes a lot within its time frame of two hours and nine minutes.

During a 1996 film festival spotlighting his work, Woo commented that many of the action scenes featured in “Hard Boiled” were done “when I was in a crazed state”. He described a scene in which Chow Yun-Fat is running down an exploding hallway holding a baby, and Woo wasn’t satisfied that the explosions weren’t big and frightening enough. He asked the special effects technicians to reset the explosives and give him the trigger. When Chow Yun-Fat ran down the hall, Woo would immediately set the explosives off, nearly incinerating Chow, who barely made it. According to Woo, Chow exclaimed to the producer afterwards “John’s trying to kill me! John’s trying to kill me!”. When Woo heard Chow screaming, he went up to apologize to Chow and saw that the back of his head and coat were in fact singed from the explosions. Chow was so frightened that he threw his prop guns down after the take and asked Woo “Are you happy now, you motherf*****?”, but then asked “Did it look okay?”

No one can hold a candle to that of Chow Yun-Fat’s rebel cop Tequila. He is so cool that he can slide down a stairway handrail (which was improvised by Chow Yun-Fat) with a gun in each hand, mowing people down left and right with a toothpick firmly clenched between his pearly whites. Now this, kids, is what we call an action movie. “Hard Boiled” has brains, a compelling story, great performances and action. 

Like many of Woo’s other films, “Hard Boiled” has lived a complicated life on home video, getting released over and over again and always quickly falling out of print. It was once available along with “The Killer” in a beautiful Criterion Collection edition. At last, a new Blu Ray edition from the Weinstein’s Dragon Dynasty label was released as The Ultimate Edition. Quite a few years back a great video game (which I owned) arrived on the PS3. The game called “Stranglehold”, served as the long awaited sequel to “Hard Boiled”. 

“Hard Boiled” houses an excessive amount of violence, and although it is in keeping with the Hong Kong tradition of stylized violence. It doesn’t feel as gratuitous or glorified as it might in an American film, and there have been plenty of domestic pictures which have tried to mimic Woo’s style but often fails. Watching his intricately assembled action scenes is hypnotic and beautiful, with bodies moving like graceful dancers and explosions lighting up the screen like fireworks. 

Anyway you cut it, John Woo shoots gorgeous violence. It is easily one of the slickest action pictures ever made. It’s gritty, it’s stylish, and it was merely only a matter of time before John Woo was drafted by Hollywood to incorporate his trademark gonzo style and themes into the American action genre. The legendary Chow Yun-Fat gives an excellent performance as the conflicted and dead set Tequila. John Woo’s eye popping masterpiece is one of the greatest action movies ever made that catapulted him as a legend. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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