Alli: Modern action cinema is full of shaky-cam, grit, chaotic set pieces, and giant robots (nothing against giant robots, they’re just the sparkling vampires of the contemporary action film). Sometimes a single film features all four of these and it’s a mess. Every summertime action movie season, 90% of the films are trash (in the bad way). I know we can’t expect a Fury Road every year, but there’s a certain daring artfulness and style missing from the movies that Hollywood churns out year after year.
To be fair, action films are difficult to calibrate. With too many explosions & gun shot scenes and not enough character development, they’re just silly. Too few kapow!s and they’re boring. No tension and they’re a flop. They need the perfect balance of fun and danger to excel as cinematic junk food.
John Woo, while he has made his share of flops, is one of action cinema’s greats, and Hard Boiled is his masterpiece. It’s a perfect blend of style and tension. He manages to keep the stakes just as high as the amount of fun. The sequences of explosions and stunts are beautifully choreographed, displaying the influence of kung fu movies that Honk Kong is historically known for. The characters, while classic tropes, are compelling, with even small side characters being afforded a life of their own. It manages to follow the blueprints laid down by the movies before it, while also exploring new territories.
A hard-boiled cop,”Tequila” (Chow Yun-Fat), and his partner go on a stake-out in a tea house to take down gun-smuggling gangsters. The tea house is full of pet birds (a tradition called bird-walking) and shady underworld types. When the stake-out descends into a extraordinarily violent shootout in a flurry of feathers and bullets, Tequila’s partner is killed. He swears revenge. Against his boss’s orders, he tracks down those responsible and with the help of a deep undercover cop, Alan (Tony Leung). Together, they take the entire enterprise down in one final battle. That violent climax happens to be staged inside a hospital, where there’s an underground gun cache. Patients are killed, babies are saved, and of course the whole thing is blown up spectacularly.
I only briefly mentioned the side characters, but my favorite is “Mad Dog,” played by Phillip Kwok. He’s a motorcycle-riding, badass henchman. At some point he loses an eye and the eye patch only makes him look cooler. Brandon, what did you think of Mad Dog? Do you have any other favorite characters?
Brandon: “Mad Dog” is definitely a clear stand-out among the film’s legion of baddies. Compared to his heartless crime boss, who is coded to be Pure Evil merely for being the only player around with Caucasian features (a common theme in eternally typecast Johnny Wong’s career), Kwok’s eye patch-wearing motorcyclist is a relatively complex character who evolves as the film progresses. When his diabolical De Facto White Guy boss demands that he put innocent hospital patients, including babies, in harm’s way during the climactic gunfight, he refuses to oblige out of a sense of human decency. That means a lot in the greater story about an illegal arms business gone mad, where money means more than lives and no human obstacle is sacred. Hard Boiled is very economical with its characterizations, presumably out of necessity. Tequila’s self-contradiction as a tough guy cop who plays jazz clarinet, Alan’s in-too-deep psychological breakdown expressing itself through his origami hobby, and even Mad Dog’s eye patch-wearing leather demonry all have a pro wrestling quality as personality traits; you have to instantly know via visual language who is Good and who is Bad to leave room for the much more complex & fully-developed action set pieces to flourish. Mad Dog & Alan are allowed (to borrow a wrestling parlance) face-turns in their respective roles, which makes them more interesting than other, more static villains & side characters, but they’re still (as Alli points out) classical archetypes. Even with far less screen time, Mad Dog makes more of an impression than Alan does, though, mostly because he just looks cool
My favorite side character in the film gets even less screen time than Mad Dog, but to even greater effect. It’s the chubby little baby Tequila partners with in the climactic gunfight. In an action sequence so iconically bonkers it features heavily on the film’s poster despite having fuck all to do with arms dealing, Tequila & his fellow cops have to save a nursery full of newborn babies by smuggling them out of the hospital window in the middle of a chaotic gunfight. I rolled my eyes a tad at the way the perpetually sidelined Lady Cop is finally given something to do (besides receiving flowers) in this scene, only for it to be the domestic work of caring for children. That unease is more than compensated for, however, when Tequila pairs up with one baby in particular who was left behind in the flaming hospital. Chow Yun-Fat’s comedic rapport with this fat-cheeked baby is adorable, especially in contrast to the bursts of gunfire he has to interrupt to soothe the baby with coos & a novelty rap song (!!!). The baby isn’t just an adorable mascot in this scene, either. He gets actively involved in the violent mayhem by putting out Tequila’s clothes fire with his piss, effectively saving the day. Even without this absurdist touch, Hard Boiled would’ve been instantly recognizable as an over-the-top action classic, but that exchange really helped seal it for me, which makes the chubby piss-baby an easy pick for MVP.
Britnee, since character development is somewhat secondary to Hard Boiled‘s complex set pieces & stylized violence, I’d like to know which action sequences stood out to you as favorites. Besides the bird cafe & hospital shootouts Alli & I already mentioned, there’s a nonstop flood of mayhem that spreads throughout all corners of Hong Kong: public libraries, warehouses, shipping docks, etc. Was there any one set piece that stood out to you as a particular highlight?
Britnee: I have never seen an action film with this much . . . well, action. The shootout scenes seemed to last forever and the effects were top-of-the-line. Needless to say, there’s too many action sequences to choose from. The almighty hospital shootout scene is probably the most memorable in the film for me, mainly because I can’t think of any other action film that has such a violent scene set in a hospital. Staging so much violence in such an innocent background seems almost taboo, and I think that Woo did his best to make sure that viewers were on the edge of their seat for that sequence. I mean, newborn babies were dangling from a cloth outside a hospital window while the hospital itself was blowing up.
The hospital sequence may have been awarded Most Memorable, but I have to say that my favorite action set piece is the one in which dear Uncle Hoi is killed in the warehouse. I still can’t figure out how all those explosions and gunshots could occur in such a small space with so many survivors. It’s almost as though the characters in this scene were immortal; they were able to withstand untold amounts of gunfire and explosions. Not only was the action mind-boggling, but my favorite moment in the entire film occurs in this sequence. Amidst all the chaos, a motorcycle that is engulfed in flames plows through the crowd. I remember this moment being in slow motion, but it’s possible that the slow motion occurred only in my mind. My jaw dropped and a long “whoaaaa” fell out. It was so beautiful and terrifying at the same time, much like this movie as a whole.
There is a scene in Hard Boiled that I haven’t been able to shake since watching it a few weeks ago. It’s the final scene in which Alan is throwing his origami cranes into the ocean from his sailboat. Prior to this scene, Alan shoots himself in the stomach to give Tequila a chance to shoot Wong. Part of me feels like he really didn’t die because he would be smart enough to wear a bulletproof vest, considering the situation. Alan jokes with Tequila about leaving everything behind and starting anew in Hawaii a couple of times throughout the movie, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what was actually happening in the final scene or if this was Alan’s ghost fulfilling his dream.
Boomer, what is your take on the film’s ending? Did Alan really die? Or did he survive the gunshot?
Boomer: I like that this is left intentionally vague but tempered by heavy allegorical imagery that permeates the film’s final scenes. We see Da Chief setting Alan’s file aflame in his office, just as we saw the docket for the previous killed-in-action undercover officer burned, a kind of memorial for a fallen friend. I don’t think that Alan was wearing a vest, though. We did see what contemporary Kevlar vests looked like in the final battle when the more heavily-armed police forces arrive at the hospital; they turn these armaments into makeshift baskets for some of the last few infants left behind in the maternity ward, and we see these same officers get eaten up by bullets shortly thereafter. As much as I want the ending to mean that our handsome hero Alan is alive, I get the sense that the interpretive element of the presentation is not as ambiguous as it was in, for instance, The Psychic. Per his conversation with Tequila, each of Alan’s origami cranes represents a man that he had to kill, both in the line of duty and to maintain his cover. While these deaths were all of evil men engaged in the gun trade, they weigh heavily on his conscience. Alan also mentions that Hawaii is a place he has never seen, a kind of paradise to which he’s hoping to achieve entry by passing through the crucible of his assignment. As he drops each paper bird into the ocean at the end, it is as if Alan is letting the sins he committed fall away from him into the ether as he sails toward whatever lies next for him.
We can assume that the film has a Taoist perspective, given that Tequila makes his entreaty for reconciliation with Teresa and a new apartment to a shrine of Guan Yu. Even with that in mind, the various different sects of Taoism are notoriously disunified in their different perspectives on death and the afterlife, so even thoroughly researching the topic doesn’t yield particularly useful information. Although Alan would be traveling eastward to reach Hawaii from China (in fact, he’d be going almost due east, given that there’s barely one degree of latitude difference between Hong Kong and Honolulu), a cursory internet search hasn’t helped me locate a specific correlation between eastward travel and enlightenment or the afterlife in Taoism. Religions informed by Christianity do hold the east—the cardinal direction, not the region—to have religious significance, however. Most cathedrals are cruciform in construction (see the Pisa Cathedral for a good example), with the “upper” part of the cross lying on the eastern end so that the congregation faces eastward, in the presumed direction of Christ (“For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” -Matthew 24:27, KJV). It may just be my Western biases slipping through, but it feels like there’s a significance to Alan traveling east in (presumed) death, but I could be reading too much into it.
On the other hand, there is ample evidence that Alan could have survived. He’s definitely made of sterner stuff than other men, given that he takes a glancing shotgun blast to the back earlier in the film and survives. He also already survived a gunshot wound to the abdomen, as we see him tending the wound in his undershirt aboard the houseboat. We also know that he has implausibly good aim, as shown when he was able to slip a lighter into Fox’s pocket and then shoot him in such a way that the bullet was deflected from killing him by that same tiny piece of metal. Like I said: it’s up to one’s personal dissection, and my personal affection for Alan (and Tony Leung) means that I want the final shot of him embracing a new day to be a real event and not metaphorical, but the interpretation that he is dead is a much more rich vein, at least in my opinion.
Alli, you mentioned that you were a fan of Mad Dog, and I too liked that his character was multidimensional, especially in comparison to some of our “good” characters. Which characters, if any, do you feel simply don’t work (or pale in comparison to Mad Dog), and why? What would you improve about them to make them more lifelike or believable?
Alli: I am not a big fan of the character John Woo wrote for himself here. Supposedly this character was a late addition intended to help develop Tequila more, since many of his scenes playing jazz and pursuing his romance with Teresa were cut. The idea was that if John Woo was in a scene, why would he cut it? Though, I do get a director wanting to appear in a ridiculous movie that even from plot alone is a magnum opus. We didn’t need to watch Tequila seek advice from his bartender at the jazz club. The advice wasn’t even all that useful. It just felt like an unnecessary detail that added to the clutter. It’s understandable why in a movie with a cool badass like Mad Dog and the dreamy Alan going through moral dilemmas and tough choices, Chow Yun-Fat would want a character who doesn’t just ignore his boss’s orders and his girlfriend’s wishes, but I feel like there were better ways to handle that. The Mr. Woo scenes are a little too on the nose.
It’s hard for me to talk about this movie without comparing it to Die Hard. Both deal with rogue cops single-handedly taking down massive conspiracies and criminal organizations. Both are packed with iconic action sequences. Also, when it comes down to it, I think their main characters are extremely similar. John McClane isn’t really developed any more than Tequila until the action gets started, when we get a sense of his smug sense of humor and hear the “yippee ki yay.” In the same way, I think we see more of who Tequila is when he’s being a cop: smashing gangsters’ car windows, independently dropping into a warehouse full of baddies to shoot up the place, and, once again, the rap lullaby.
I’m sure there’s a ton of other Die Hard comparisons one could make, since they’re two of the finest action movies ever made, but I’m going to stop there for now. Brandon, are there any other movies you’d compare Hard Boiled to? Are the any movies heavily influenced by it that you’ve seen? What do you think of Hard Boiled‘s place in the action genre as a whole?
Brandon: The question of influence is a difficult one to detangle (except in blatant cases like the action spoof Shoot Em Up borrowing its baby-themed shoot-out concept wholesale), since Hong Kong action cinema drew heavy influence from its American counterparts before leaving its own mark on that industry in a kind of creative ouroboros. Since John Woo himself has since become an American cinema icon, the easiest points of comparison might be to look at his own work. Hard Boiled is weirdly positioned as the final film in Woo’s catalog before the two distinct markers critics usually cite as the downfall of Hong Kong’s action cinema heyday: the exodus of the movement’s most prominent directors to Hollywood and the handover of Hong Kong itself from British rule to mainland China in 1997 . With his following film, the JCVD vehicle Hard Target, you can already see the way American sensibilities (particularly the MPAA’s attitude towards violence) diluted Woo’s creative voice. By the time he directed pictures like Face/Off and the rap-rock opera Mission: Impossible 2, almost all of Hard Boiled‘s mesmerizing hyperviolence had completely evaporated, leaving only the over-the-top cheese behind. As a result, I’ve always shrugged off the suggestion that John Woo is an easy pick for the all-time greatest craftsman in action cinema. His American pictures maintain his playful absurdism, his obsession with white doves, and his excess of individual camera setups within a single action sequence (complete with slow-motion pauses for detail); they’re even (for the most part) really fun to watch. They don’t ever approach the intricate genius in craft or the blunt force brutality of Hard Boiled, though, and I feel like an idiot for avoiding seeing Woo’s work from his Hong Kong glory days for so long because of that slow American decline.
Britnee, what was your first experience with John Woo as a director? I’m assuming it was a 90s American picture as well. How did it compare to your experience with Hard Boiled?
Britnee: Hard Boiled is actually the first John Woo film that I’ve fully seen. I swear, I’m always late to the party for everything. When I was a kid, I saw parts of Face/Off and Hard Target thanks to the TNT and USA channels, but I don’t really remember much about either movie. Not knowing John Woo’s work is actually exciting to me, though. This is an entirely new world of action films that I can throw myself into. After looking at the decent-sized list of films Woo has directed, I noticed a good number of Hong Kong works. I’m curious to see if any of them are on the level of Hard Boiled, which would be freaking amazing.
I was a little nervous about being able to keep up with Hard Boiled when I realized it was an action film entirely in Cantonese. Having to pay attention to subtitles in an action-packed movie makes the film seem more like a chore than an enjoyment. Ultimately, I was somehow able to understand what was going on without really paying attention to the subtitles. It’s not that there was a lack of verbal interaction between the characters, either. I think credit goes to a blend of excellent acting and directing.
Boomer, did you have a similar experience with the subtitles?
Boomer: About two months ago, some friends and I were binging on all the Pop-Up Videos we could find on YouTube. One of these was the video for “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. There’s a point in that one where the song is playing, the subtitles say something different from the lyrics, and there’s a simultaneous “informational” pop-up; while watching it, it was like my brain blew a fuse for a second because it was impossible to keep up with every piece of information being presented. I think there’s definitely a danger in this kind of sensory overload in any action film, let alone one that is not in a language the viewer speaks. On the other hand, editing and tone are actually more important to an overall understanding of a film than even the dialogue is, and a good director, like Woo, knows how to use the languages of dialogue and the rhetorical space of visuals & editing to convey ideas. Film theorist Lindsay Ellis actually discusses this in the first entry of her fantastic series of video essays in which she uses the Transformers series as an easy textual representation of certain filmic ideas like affinity/contrast of continuum of movement.
Ellis asks: why is it so hard to remember what happens in those terrible movies? One answer is that there is a constant disruption of the continuum of movement between shots. When the eye has to move from one part of the screen to another when the shot changes, that is contrast of continuum of movement; a good director uses this intentionally in order to disorient the viewer after a period of relative visual stability. When it’s used constantly, however, it only serves to induce anxiety and confusion and prevents the film from coming together in a logical, sensible way. It effectively offsets what we call “persistence of vision” and baffles the mind, just like the aforementioned Pop-Up version of “Everybody Hurts.” I had this experience myself when I was 20 years old and went to see Transformers in theaters; I had gotten an eye infection the week beforehand, and was wearing an eyepatch at the screening. I still clearly remember parts of the film where the action was so intense and nonsensical that, through a single eye, the screen essentially went blank. The fact that this happens in a film in my (and our) native tongue is telling; there was no language barrier, but the film was still incomprehensible.
In general, though, competent directors know better than to try and hit more than one center of the brain at once, even if they only learn this skill through osmosis. In any given action scene, the protagonist will generally throw out a one liner either immediately before (“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”) or after (“Welcome to Earth!”) taking action. Only a very poor director would attempt to have their lead recite a lengthy screed at the same time that dozens of weapons dealers storm a factory. Even in something like Wrath of Khan, in which Khan gives a recitation of the “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee” speech from Moby Dick, that dialogue doesn’t play out over footage of two starships shooting at each other; the invective is delivered in close-up. Not every director is competent, of course, and I’ve definitely seen a film or two that was confusing because of an editorial failure and not as an intentional device (Tribulation comes to mind), but Hard Boiled doesn’t fall into this category. And, hey, if you could follow the movie without dialogue, more power you.
Britnee: I love how there wasn’t a lot of unnecessary lovey-dovey stuff in Hard Boiled. I hate when action films bring in a ridiculous love story because it always takes away from the adrenaline high that I get after a good combat scene or two. There’s a light touch of romance between Tequila and Teresa, but it’s not enough to be a major plot point. Alli mentioned that a couple of romantic scenes between them were cut, and I’m so glad that they were.
Alli: I have watched this movie so many times and I still for the life of me have no idea why the lead’s nickname is Tequila, especially since throughout the film he’s only shown drinking gin & tonic. I don’t know if I like it better that it’s not explained or if I really wish we had the answer to that.
Boomer: Alli, look away in case you want to preserve the mystery of Tequila’s nickname, but . . . he’s not drinking a G&T. That’s a tequila slammer, which is notable for the way that it’s mixed (slamming it).
For interested parties who want to know more about how the brain accepts and interprets information, both musically and not, I can’t recommend the video essay “The Mozart Effect” by Sideways enough. In it, he talks about the areas of the brain that are affected by speech-as-sound, subvocalization, and why certain sounds/music are more conducive to certain activities.
Brandon: My apologies for bringing up pro wrestling a second time in this conversation (my WrestleMania tickets must be eating a hole in my brain), but something else about films from Hong Kong legends like John Woo & Tsui Hark remind me of another wrestling term: the sell.
The stunts pulled off in Hard Boiled and its ilk are so convincingly dangerous that I often have a difficult time watching the screen out of fear for the actors’ safety. The fact that Hong Kong action stars were often pressured to do their own stunts instead of leaving the work to professional doubles makes the experience even more nerve-racking. It’s entirely possible that these were super safe sets and the danger onscreen was just “sold” especially well by the performers, but it’s still difficult to watch at times. Even professional wrestlers, who are often accused of being in a “fake” business, frequently get injured . . . or sometimes worse. I won’t deny that this sense of real-life danger is uniquely thrilling, though. It’s one of the many things that distinguish Hard Boiled & its Hong Kong contemporaries from their American counterparts.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Brandon presents Suicide Club (2001)
April: Britnee presents Magic in the Mirror (1996)
May: Boomer presents Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
-The Swampflix Crew