Directed by: John Woo || Produced by: Terence Chang, Linda Kuk
Screenplay by: John Woo, Barry Wong || Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Teresa Mo, Philip Chan, Philip Kwok, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Bowie Lam
Music by: Michael Gibbs || Cinematography: Wang Wing-Heng || Editing by: John Woo, Kai Kit-Wai, David Wu || Country: Hong Kong || Language: Cantonese
Running Time: 126 minutes
John Woo’s trademark Hong Kong-action projects have often resounded more in their influence on Western filmmakers than in their critical or financial success upon release. Despite how impressive some of his works in Asia during the late 1980s and early 1990s were, most of those flicks never achieved more than strong cult status in the director’s native Hong Kong. Arguably Woo’s greatest impact was in how much he affected Hollywood action writer-directors during the 1990s and 2000s, most notably the Wachowskis and Quentin Tarantino. Given the recent success of those filmmakers’ works, however, specifically the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), film enthusiasts and mainstream crowds have grown kinder to the classic projects of Woo and have begun showing them the great praise they deserved.
Woo’s most well known films vary depending on whom you ask, although most critics would laud A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard-Boiled as the most famous films of his “classic era.” For better or worse, these are the films Woo will be best known for years down the line, as his attempts at Hollywood studio success were utter failures and Red Cliff (2008-2009), as exciting as that film may have been, was nowhere near as memorable as Woo’s films from the 1980s and 1990s.
The best and by far most influential of Woo’s filmography is the 1992 classic, Hard-Boiled, starring the action-icon that appeared in all of Woo’s most famous pictures, Chow Yun-Fat. Hard-Boiled is John Woo’s magnum opus. As good as The Killer and Red Cliff were, neither of those films hold a candle to the ultimate shoot-’em-up action flick of all time. A true forerunner of The Matrix, Hard-Boiled features fantastic cinematography and fight-choreography, as well as excellent pacing that ultimately feeds into the now famous “hospital holdout” centerpiece. You’re not a true action fan until you’ve seen this.
Boiled’s now trademark “gun-fu” combat-sequences are as glorious and violent as the knife and fistfights in Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011). Its two major set-pieces are a giant shootout in which Yun-Fat takes on entire drug lord army in an abandoned warehouse, and an extended, roller-coaster ride of a climax in a held-up hospital. The latter set-piece contains a marvelous example of Woo’s expert handheld camerawork in one sequence in particular, where two of our heroes (Yun-Fat and Tony Leung) navigate a series of enemy-infested hallways in single, continuous take that lasts two minutes and forty seconds. This long-take illustrates how action scenes can be every bit as nuanced and aesthetically beautiful as an operatic dance. However, the film’s most iconic image takes place in the first ten minutes, when Chow Yun-Fat slides down a stairway railing on his back, pistols blasting in both hands as he guns down bad-guys like it’s nobody’s business. The movie is just too damned cool.
As for its writing, Hard-Boiled is strong and paces the action well for maximum excitement. Chow Yun-Fat’s protagonist is slick and charismatic, and Yun-Fat absolutely owns the role with unforgettable screen-presence. He is the quintessential modern gun-slinger with a cool attitude and nerves of steel. Using his star as his instrument, Woo builds a magnificent, bullet-ridden adventure that keeps you excited and your eyes glued to the screen as shell casings cover the set-floors.
The final layer of icing on this action-packed cake is the great soundtrack, which contains a range of electronic synth movements and surprisingly beautiful jazz pieces. The score fits the action perfectly and sets the mood for the film like a Tchaikovsky opera.
While ascertaining the single best action movie of all time is no simple task despite how much action-junkies may complain, a “Top 10 List” would certainly be incomplete without John Woo’s masterful Hard-Boiled. The film’s legacy and influence has grown in the twenty years since its original release, easily making it one of the most influential action movies as well as one of the best. Although its direction, like The Raid’s, is more sublime than its script, the writing is more than capable of propelling the set-pieces with the greatest force, and the pacing and Yun-Fat’s characterization are far more effective and nuanced than most of its shoot-em-up brethren.
At its core, Hard-Boiled is a marvelously crafted action movie with magnificent gun-fights, but its tonal style, like all great films, is deeper than its DVD-summary suggests. It is far from perfect, lacking a truly menacing or memorable villain, and some of the on-screen physics can verge on incredulity at times, but Woo always manages to dial the scope back to keep things within the realm of heightened psuedo-realism and relatable ultraviolence. It is an awesome ride. Witness the original guns-blazing cinematic dance of death.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Glorious cinematography and deft direction from action legend John Woo bring us some of the finest slow-motion violence from the other side of The Matrix. Chow Yun-Fat is a treat to watch endlessly fly through the air, firing off twin pistols with chaotic fury. The film’s score combines electronic synthesizers with old-school jazz tunes to great effect.
— However… despite all the awesome action, the film lacks a truly threatening villain to match Yun-Fat’s tenacity.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? I wish Hollywood would make an official sequel or unofficial remake to this classic bullet-fest, but without Jason Statham or Gerard Butler or Nicolas Cage.