While no doubt conjuring images to the uninitiated of a documentary about egg preparation, those of you who only know Hong Kong action maestro John Woo from his American movies, or from the swathe of Slo-Mo imitators that dived through the air shooting two guns that followed in his wake, are missing out on something magical. All of his most infamous films have a devout following thanks to his cross-breeding of sensitive tough guys, melodramatic criminal shenanigans and his patented brand of balletic, ultra-violent gun fights that spawned such classics as the A Better Tomorrow films, Bullet In The Head and, of course, the legendary The Killer. All these movies are adept at yanking at those damn heart strings while blowing your brains over the whitest walls they can find; but arguably none does it with more frenetic insanity than Hard fucking Boiled. A ballistic adrenalin enema from beginning to end, Hard Boiled has an incredibly good case, if it were to puff out it’s chest and then announce itself loudly as the greatest action movie ever made; but even if it wasn’t, it would be damn close…
We are introduced to the complicated police officer Tequila Yuen who, when he isn’t playing clarinet in his jazz band and struggling to keep his relationship afloat, simplifies his police work greatly by getting involved in apocalyptic gunfights with criminals in public places. After a firefight in a tea house that results in a bodycount a six year old would have trouble counting to, Tequila has to come to terms that his actions have left his partner dead, an undercover cop slain by his own hand and none of the potential leads in any state even close to being alive. I believe “riddled” would be a more accurate term.
While he struggles against the rigid politics that ultimately come with police work in Hong Kong, undercover cop Alan has gotten himself in so deep with his Triad gang, he’s actually committing hits for them to keep his cover, but he worries if his soul has all but dissipated with every cheeky murder. Alan is eventually approached by rival gangster and swaggering gun runner Johnny Wong to betray his crime “family” and work for him – which is exactly why Alan was planted in the first place – but matters are complicated by Tequila who vows to bring Johnny to swift, bullet-hole shaped justice as it was HIS men who initially shot up the tea house. As both Alan and Tequila both take random shots at each other (quite literally in the case of an enormous warehouse shootout), the former eventually begins to suspect the true nature of the latter, but has Tequila figured it all out too late and what will the two men be able to achieve once they find that Johnny’s gun cashe is brazenly hidden under the morgue of a hospital positively brimming with vunerable, would-be hostages?
People will die and bullets will fly but can Alan possibly hope to obtain the peace he so desperately wants without soaking up more bullets than Sonny Corleone?
Before we go into detail about exactly well crafted this film is; we can’t go any further without mentioning the eight ton, shotgun blasting elephant in the room and by that I obviously mean the trio of stunningly executed gunfights that kick’s off, directs and eventually ends the plot our characters find themselves in. The sheer scale of these three cordite reeking fracas simply can’t be easily explained as the only way to truly appreciate them is to witness them with an disbelieving expression on your dumbfounded face as various, lethal projectiles whip through the air like swarms of insecticile beasties on flying ant day. Shrapnel and flames from near misses and close-proximity explosions lick at our leads as they hurl themselves through space in agonisingly cool slow motion while unleashing devastating return-fire from guns that seemingly need on reloading or are ridiculously powerful (I don’t know what the hell Tequila has loaded his shotgun with during the insane hospital climax but it looks like it could easily blow a hole clean through a fucking submarine). There simply has been no extended action sequences better than these before or since, and as the various players go through more and more outlandish efforts to frantically kill the living shit out of whoever their next target is it’s all thanks to how steady Woo’s hand is on all the chaos. Mixing up the action during these spectacular slayathons he never once lets the tempo run away with him and keeps the various little stories set within the overarching action coherent, which in turn saves these monolithic murder sessions from becoming too exhausting or even boring. In fact, for a man infamous for staging and orchestrating countless ferocious battles over the course of his career, the carnage of Hard Boiled is yet to be surpassed (although that lank haired rascal John Wick has come close a time or two) but that also is due to the insanely capable actors making the film’s combatants much more than two dimentional targets you’d usually find on a firing range.
Woo makes his dual leading men just as sensitive as they are lethal, giving them admirably un-ironic personality quirks that the legendary Choe Yun-fat and Tony Leung both embrace hungrily. Tequila may chew matches and fire more bullets in a single gunfight that Schwarzenegger unloads during the entirety of Commando, but he also plays clarinet in a jazz band and strives to do right by his long suffering girlfriend – similarly Alan’s hugely conflicted mole makes origami cranes for every soul he murders while brooding on his yacht and communicates with his handlers with codes hidden in the melodies of love songs. It’s all vintage Woo who, much like his earlier masterpiece The Killer, fashions a plutonic love story between two men on opposite sides of the criminal divide like some sort of glorious heterosexual, same-sex, Romeo & Juliet romance shot through the lens of some truly stunning violence. In fact Woo wears his heart on his sleeve so much it leads directly to Hard Boiled’s most indelible image, that of Tequila bloodily shooting his way through a blazing maternity ward, blowing holes through various scumbags while he sings a lullaby to the cooing baby he has clutched in his arms.
Aside from the vast amounts of ballistic trauma, the film is loaded with truly memorable characters and moments that aren’t all of the divey, shooty variety; such as the imposing, Monkees-haired criminal enforcer known as Mad Dog whose morals memorably prohibit him from cutting down innocents in a crossfire or the devastated, haunted look in Leung’s eyes when his character is forced to fatally betray his old gang – fuck, the film even makes modern (well… 90’s) jazz music sound awesome; how impossible is THAT?
A first rate actioner that anyone who even remotely adores cinema simply HAS to see, Hard Boiled has influenced countless good eggs in the movie business with Edgar Wright and modern action guru Gareth Evans (who came tantalisingly close to unseating it with The Raid) being counted among the faithful.
Heroic bloodshed of the highest calibre…