Having established himself as a bonfied director of action films within Hong Kong, whose style in ushering in a new kind of Heroic Bloodshed storytelling toward the end of the eighties changed the face of a genre largely preoccupied with martial arts flicks, John Woo was at the pinnacle of his career when Hard Boiled went into production. By 1992 he was readying himself for a beckoning Hollywood who was set to introduce a new kind of action cinema to a largely mainstream audience unsolicited with the virtues of Asian film making. So before he set off to unleash Van Damme’s mullet in Hard Target, go aeronautical with the stealthy Broken Arrow and subsequently wow with the insanely plotted Face/Off he bid his farewell to Hong Kong with arguably his greatest masterwork.
Chow Yun-Fat stars as Inspector Tequila, a Jazz playing cop with a grudge who sets his sights on taking down a gun smuggling ring responsible for the death of his partner Lionheart (Bobby Au-Yeung). In charge of said organisation is Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong): a slimy individual who the police force can’t even touch. Armed to the teeth and aided by loyal triad followers, including the one-eyed “Mad Dog” (Kwok Choi), his crimes go unpunished, which is why the force has sent an undercover agent to keep tabs on him. Alan, (Tony Leung) has been posing as a gangster under the wing of Mr. Hoi (Kwan Hoi-Shan) for so long that he feels his old life has drifted into obscurity. Soon he’s given a perfect opportunity when Wong scouts him and tempts him over to his side, which eventually causes internal conflicts of loyalty and regret.
Alan’s true identity is initially unbeknownst to Tequila, who thinks of him as just another hit man getting in the way of justice. When he learns of Alan’s role they team up and agree to put an end to Wong’s reign. Meanwhile Tequila is in the midst of a wavering romance with fellow officer Teresa Chang (Teresa Mo), while his superior (Philip Chan) continually breaths down his neck for insubordination. With the additional help of an informant named Foxy (Wei Tung) Tequila and Alan draw ever closer to breaking up Wong’s operation but they’re about to be put to the ultimate test when they discover that the location of Wong’s hidden weapons cache smells of formaldehyde.
By today’s standards Hard Boiled might seem a little too clichéd, both in terms of narrative and style but then that would be a testament to how hugely influential it became; being easily traced back to from most recent Hong Kong hits such as the Infernal Affairs trilogy, while lending a certain amount of credibility toward the way in which American studios would employ similar tactics, as seen in the likes of Equilibrium and the Matrix series. John Woo had perfected a style all of his own, merging symbolism with drama and unique action sequences. It was made all the more striking because it went against the popular cranking methods of the time, preferring to deliver high-octane carnage in as slow and detailed a manner as possible. In retrospect Hard Boiled’s themes aren’t largely different from the majority of Woo’s previous films: all of his usual traits are here, such as codes of honour, loyalty and friendship, religious motifs, iconic unflappable heroes and archetypical gangsters. But Woo lends Hard Boiled with a certain kind of exquisiteness that makes it stand out as one of the most iconic Heroic Bloodshed films of all time.
There’s no singular reason as to why Hard Boiled works as well as it does. It’s a combination of screenwriting, action directing and slick editing that ensures the film remains thoroughly engaging for just over two hours. Much like his previous film: The Killer, Woo uses the action set-pieces to counterpoint a dramatic tale of friendship, revenge and redemption, bringing together these entities to create a much stronger sense of characterization and urgency when it’s time for our heroes to act. That’s not to say that Hard Boiled’s script is a masterpiece though, because frankly the narrative glosses over a lot in getting from A to B - for instance you have to go along with Tequila and Alan suddenly becoming best friends over the course of a day or so - and buying into much of its none-too-subtle ethical wordplay is a necessity. However, there’s certainly a palpable, lingering tension surrounding its heroes, giving off ominous vibes throughout and thus making subsequent exchanges all the more powerful. The story delves - albeit briefly - into the complexities of human emotion, showing us that even the most ruthless of villains can have scruples, while above all delivering true meanings of friendship, love and moral values. There’s even a little romance chucked in, detailing the rather difficult situation between fellow officers pursuing a relationship, with neither having great amounts of time to be able to enjoy their partner’s company. The sub-plot between Tequila and Teresa is largely underplayed and quite subtle in its execution but it remains a much valued element in relation to fleshing out the characters we’re meant to be caring about.
There’s a line in the opening act when Sergeant Yuen says to Tequila “Give the man a gun and he thinks he’s Superman, give him two and he thinks he’s a god.” There’s a sense of truth there but it also seems to act as an almost subliminal message in saying that it’s OK to watch our protagonists leap and shoot in mid-air, be able to withstand bullets fired at point-blank range and individually take on hordes of gangsters without breaking much of a sweat. But then John Woo always did take such huge flights of fancy. This is how he succeeds in juxtaposing traditional and not so far-fetched storytelling, with uniquely stylised action. And yes, we can add to that heavily glorified. John Woo isn’t exactly pretentious, he just wants to make his action as exciting as possible, in doing so relying on hefty amounts of stunningly choreographed bullet ballets. People don’t just stand still and point at each other, they move in perfect tandem to one another, gracefully soaring through the air as their shirts flap in the wind, brave fierce fires in death-defying displays of human athleticism and roll around simply because it looks cool. If there is a definition to describe not only Hard Boiled but the majority of Woo’s work then I suppose “cool” is perfectly apt.
Hard Boiled has its fair share of lengthy development processes but it still manages to fit in a series of small battles scattered between three hugely memorable set pieces. The opening tea house showdown brings to mind Woo’s A Better Tomorrow’s restaurant fight, in which Chow effortlessly guns down a bunch of baddies, only here it’s delivered with a little more panache, while the warehouse scene during the middle act considerably ups the ante and widens the scope as Tequila singularly braves it against a seemingly insurmountable force. But it’s the climatic final act taking place in a hospital which Hard Boiled seems to be best remembered for. Totally ridiculous, though daring all the same, Tequila, with the help of Alan, evacuates doctors, nurses and patients before taking out a weapons cache in the hospital basement and then makes a terrifying escape with an infant held close to his heart. It’s the staggering display of raw emotion, humour, jaw-dropping stunt work and self-admitted social commentary that has earned John Woo such immense critical acclaim, showing him as a truly unsurpassed voice in action cinema.
Ensuring Hard Boiled’s place in the hearts of HK cinema fans, Woo turned to long time collaborator and hot property Chow Yun-Fat, with whom he’d enjoyed a string of successes like A Better Tomorrow 1&2, The Killer and Once a Thief. Chow Yun-Fat’s biggest draw has always been his almost unmatched charisma, both onscreen and off, proving to be a genuinely nice and humbled guy who never plays up to his cool image but who can certainly turn on the charm and deliver a performance assured enough to get the best of us at the snap of a finger. As a leading man he’s never had difficulty sinking his teeth into any role; first and foremost he’s an accomplished dramatic actor, with show stoppers such as Hong Kong 1941, Autumn’s Tale and All About Ah Long, who just happened to turn action star over night. Granted, then, the role of Inspector Tequila doesn’t really require much of him, other than to use his natural born abilities, so good that he can even get away with gnawing on a toothpick in a manner which only Clint Eastwood could ever get away with. And Sure enough he turns Tequila into a well-rounded individual all the same, putting in as much effort as he always had done in prior films. But whilst Chow Yun-Fat is undoubtedly the star of the piece, it’s Tony Leung who gets some of the meatier stuff to contend with. In a dual role of sorts, much like the one he practically mirrored for 2002’s Infernal Affairs, Leung has the task of juggling his emotions back and forth, dealing with the pain of having to betray loved ones in order to side with real bad eggs. Leung, who had himself been starring in various dramas on television and film throughout the ten years prior, shows off an impressive range and one which has since secured him a top spot amongst the Hong Kong elite. With actors of this caliber it makes for a superb pairing.
Elsewhere there’s not a great deal to write home about, or rather given the nature of this review if it were any longer you’d all be bored to tears. As a main villain Anthony Wong gets little to work with; later he went on record for saying that he was displeased with the way that John Woo handled the character, though in all fairness it’s a wonder as to what he really expected. Nevertheless Wong imbues the character of Johnny Wong with enough appropriate distaste and madness to have us cheer when Tequila pops a cap in his face. John Woo himself as Mr. Woo, Teresa Mo as love interest Teresa (see the regular commonalities in actor names being used in HK flicks) and Philip Chan make for solid support,along with the appropriately cast stunt man Kwok Choi as Wong’s right-hand man “Mad Dog”.
Hard Boiled has
Hard Boiled in presented in an original 1.84:1 aspect ratio, with anamorphic enhancement, and it’s not too shabby to look at really. Aside from looking a little soft in places the image holds up remarkably well, with a strong colour palette and decent contrast and blacks. Anything that could be deemed as a negative strictly comes down as being a by-product of the original source material. Given the nature of Woo’s direction and film stock used, Hard Boiled has its fair share of shimmering and high grain, both of which evidently appear natural, with no disparaging signs of compression artefacts or digital manipulation.
As for sound we’re rather spoilt for choice. The film comes with four main tracks: Original Cantonese mono, Cantonese 5.1 Surround, Cantonese DTS and English 5.1 Surround. DTS enthusiasts will be discouraged to hear that it’s quite underwhelming. Dialogue is fine, but carries a slight hollowness, while the sub-woofer is entirely inactive throughout, which I find most perplexing as I assumed that’s where DTS really would come into its own. The rear channels pick up some nice spatial effects though, from cars to gun fire, but it really doesn’t register much higher than the supplied Cantonese 5.1 option. Therefore I feel that Dragon Dynasty could have just dispensed with the DTS altogether to save a little space for this maxed out release. The English dub I believe is the original. I have to admit that it’s been too long since I’ve heard it to able to confirm 100%, but it does come across cheesy enough to believe so. In terms of surrounds it’s about on par with the Cantonese DTS and 5.1 options, so there’s plenty for dub fans to get excited over. But I have to say for my money the original Cantonese mono track is the way to go. This was my only main choice at the end of the day; dialogue is perfectly crisp and the action sequences deliver more than enough across the central channel. But hey, there’s something here for everyone, and it’s not often that fans get such a wide selection.
The disc includes optional English subtitles and I can indeed confirm that they’re dubtitles. While there’s nothing particularly awful about this there is certainly enough to warrant fan concerns. The translation is close enough to get the story and motivations across etc, but it also delivers some very dodgy lines which are far too western localised. Oddly enough we’ll see “F-ing” being used as a replacement for fucking, obviously, while other little character outbursts containing colloquialisms like “sweet F.A” rings a little false. Overall they’re not greatly distracting, but they’re most definitely noticeable.
Disc one - being so crowded with audio tracks - carries only one extra: An audio commentary with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. Whenever Bey Logan supplies a commentary for a Hong Kong film on DVD he always pleases. Anyone who has enjoyed his HKL commentaries over the years should be fully aware of his superb insight toward the Hong Kong film industry, and therefore it’s no surprise to learn that he delivers the goods once more for Hard Boiled. Logan covers an awful lot of ground and rarely pauses throughout the two hour run time, rallying off various facts about production and cast, some of which we learn in the accompanying interviews, while remaining fully engaging and enthusiastic.
Disc two houses the rest of the supplementary material. First up is the newly recorded Baptism of Fire: A Featurette with John Woo (38.18). Conducted entirely in English, director John Woo talks enthusiastically about his time spent making Hard Boiled, in addition to citing his influences Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. Regarding Hard Boiled he touches upon his original intents for the story, which concerned a rather sordid tale of baby serial killings, starring Tony Leung. With a high crime rate in Hong Kong at the time, where criminals were carrying more firepower than the police, Woo also discusses how Hard Boiled mirrors contemporary society. He also talks with great fondness about Tony Leung and Chow Yun-Fat, how he pretty much put them through hell, with a few very close calls that could have been potentially devastating, and he also speaks highly of his crew and the family unit atmosphere they helped create. Naturally he does offer insight into the making of the film’s major set pieces, to which he explains using musical influences in order to capture fluid dance-like routines. There are loads of little interesting facts scattered around, from script changes, to locations being used and characters being introduced, while his love of Jazz is spoken of as well. He seems quite humbled by Hard Boiled’s success and recalls how amazingly it took off in the west.
Moving on to the “Interview Gallery” we begin with Partner in Crime: Interview with Terence Chang (24.55). John Woo’s producer talks about how he and Woo first met in the late seventies and how Woo subsequently worked for ten years making “bad comedies”, up until his first major success as an action director with A Better Tomorrow, eventually teaming up full time with Chang and enjoying immense success with The Killer. He mentions Woo’s French gangster film influences and casting a major star such as Chow Yun-Fat for several of their productions. Like Woo he also touches upon the original script which had to be changed, with Barry Wong writing a solid treatment before passing away and leaving the crew to pretty much wing it the rest of the way. We also learn of the daily hassles on set, including Triad interventions and Woo’s general excessive spontaneity, which brought about heavy communication breakdowns, along with Chow Yun-Fat having a bit of a grumble from time to time. Chang also mentions the heavy criticisms geared toward the film for being too violent and similarly talks about its success overseas. He’s a very well spoken man and comes across quite charming.
Art Imitates Life: An Interview with co-star Philip Chan (15.55) is again conducted in English, with Chan coming across just as articulate as Chang. He has perhaps the most interesting background and stories to tell, primarily because he really was a Chief Inspector prior to making movies. Being that he was heavily involved at one point in undercover work he had the perfect know how to approach the role of Sergeant Yuen. It’s also somewhat ironic that since leaving the force the majority of his roles were playing police officers on film, but nonetheless it’s certainly an amazing transition from one successful career to another. Aside from telling his own anecdotes he chats about his co-stars Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung and Teresa Mo and also speaks highly of Woo and his old friend Barry Wong.
The final interview on the disc is Mad Dog Bites Again: Interview with Leading Villain Kwok Choi (25.02). This interview is in Cantonese and begins with Choi reminiscing about working at TVB and Shaw Studios in the run up to becoming a fully fledged choreographer and stunt coordinator. This interview is interesting because after he’s discussed getting involved with John Woo and earning a memorable acting gig he details the huge differences between Hong Kong and American stunt work, certainly back in the day in how drastically different preparations were. He mentions developing the single hand gun stance for the sake of entertainment, along with working with explosives and surviving through some scary situations. He talks of the warehouse sequence and the big hospital showdown, where he filmed an almost single take shootout with Tony Leung. He also comes across as a very pleasant chap and clearly has enjoyed his time on set and coming away with a villainous role deemed very cool by a large majority of fans.
The rest of the features are largely filler pieces. Hard Boiled Location Guide (8.48) is presented by the zesty and humorous Kea Wong, who takes us on a tour of all the major filming spots, offering a few interesting titbits along the way, such as the role of Terese was originally designed for Michelle Yeoh! Following on from this we have a small Trailer Gallery, which has the Hong Kong theatrical trailer and a new U.S. promo trailer.
The final extra on the disc sees Dragon Dynasty promoting Midway’s XBOX 360 videogame “Stranglehold” – a follow up to Hard Boiled, featuring Chow Yun-Fat reprising his role as Inspector Tequila. This only runs for just over three minutes, supplying some info from lead developers, including working closely with John Woo and his original script and recording with Chow Yun-Fat (along with some behind-the-scenes footage of the actor at work), while also showing off several game play clips.
So overall we have a nice enough set of extras, though I’m not sure it truly warrants its “Ultimate Edition” tag. There could have been more pieces of interest, such as input from Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung and of course Anthony Wong, even if it was just archive material. It also would have been nice to have had the “famous” deleted scenes that Kea Wong references in her short segment.
To be perfectly honest I’m not sure that I’ve said anything that hasn’t already been addressed in the past about Woo’s masterpiece, suffice it to say that there’s a reason as to why Hard Boiled usually makes it into any self-respecting action cinema fan’s top ten list. Hard Boiled well and truly is a classic of its genre, right up their alongside the best of the best, by which I don’t mean that film starring Eric Roberts.