I wish I could go back and see this movie for the first time again. Around the time Hard Target was released, MTV did a brief profile on John Woo and showed all these crazy scenes of gun fights. I grew up watching action movies like anyone else you know, but these Hong Kong movies looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. The movies I was used to featured body builders standing in one location, unloading belts of ammunition into bad guys. These Asian guys carried much smaller weapons, but looked unblievably bad ass while shooting them. They would leap through the air, a gun in each hand, empyting entire clips into the bad guys. Nobody ever took one or two bullets in these movies, either. Everyone winds up riddled. This was a major paradigm shift for me, a gunplay movie with as much style and grace as the best kung fu movies I’ve seen. It was the cinematic equivalent of chocolate and peanut butter.
Last Tuesday, Dragon Dynasty laid it down proper with a 2-disc release of this movie. It had been some time since John Woo, Chow Yun Fat and I had spent any time together, so it was nice to kick things off again with what is the greatest release of this movie yet. I was immediately whisked away to that time in my life when I was just discovering the international movie scene. A recommendation from a friend in high school that I check out a couple of movies from France and Hong Kong because they were doing things not only differently, but better than anything the American market was turning out.
“Better than Die Hard?” I asked.
“Better than Die Hard.” He replied.
Tequila, his partner Benny and a bunch of other undercover cops lay in wait in a teahouse where an illegal gun sale is about to go down. Everything looks good until the cops make their move. Rather than produce their guns and place the smugglers under arrest, the cops attack the criminals and a wild gun fight breaks out in the tea house. Cops and robbers fly in all directions, tagging each other with bullets. Civillians try to get out of the way, only to get hosed in the process. When the smoke clears, it looks like everyone is dead except for Tequila. Even his partner is dead. What we learn in the aftermath is that these smugglers worked for Johnny Wong, the newest Triad gangster in town. The last guy in the teahouse to eat Tequila’s bullet was an undercover cop working against Johnny Wong. Meanwhile, in another Triad gang, Alan, yet another deep cover cop, is working toward the top of Triad to help bust an aging gangster named Hoi. Johnny Wong comes along and offers Alan the opportunity to move up the ladder and into a new position in his gang. All he has to do is sell out Hoi. As Hoi’s men prepare shipments of guns to move, Johnny Wong’s men bust in and kill everyone and finally, Alan kills Hoi. Enter Tequila, who singlehandedly swings down on a rope and hoses most of these guys down with bullets. Alan and Tequila’s paths cross for the first time and Tequila suspects that he is secretly a cop. After a brief meeting later, Alan and Tequila join forces against Johnny Wong who is moving weapons around the world from a secret bunker in a hospital leading to one of the greatest action scenes ever shot.
By this point in his career, John Woo had perfected he heroic bloodshed formula. Every movie (with the exception of Once A Thief) he made stepped closer to being the perfect action movie. What set Woo apart from his contemporaries, however, was his ability to weave a morality play out of his scripts. These were more than balletic bullet festivals. His heroes struggled with their values. To be a cop and play by the rules wasn’t really working for either Tequila or Alan. On one hand, Tequila did his best to follow the code of conduct of an officer, but a rising tide of villainy that didn’t have to gather evidence and build cases that would hold strong in court forced him to take on a new set of values. Alan, also a cop, had to abandon everything he was trained to hold dear and embrace the dark world of the Triads in order to achieve his goals. He became a killer for the police. The world of John Woo’s good guys is a wide expanse of gray areas. Not even the villains are cut and dry. With the exception of Johnny Wong, the big bad guy in Hard Boiled, Uncle Hoi is portrayed in the same light as Don Corleone. He’s a man with a criminal background but is not entirely unlikable. He’s a thief with an honor code, a dying breed in the world of Hard Boiled.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that even though John Woo was blazing trails with his amazing action movies, he was also borrowing from the same movie culture that would eventually adopt his style lock, stock and barrel. Tequila is every bit Dirty Harry. While he’s not as stone faced as Eastwood, his frustration with the boundaries of the system he has to work in is easily seen.
It’s really no wonder why Chow Yun Fat became such a success in these action movies. Everyone is familiar with his charisma these days. Though it was a bit of a struggle to get out from under American garbage like The Replacement Killers and The Corruptor, his true skill as an actor has been seized upon so that he’s now acting in high profile pieces like Pirates of the Carribean. A non-action role in Anna and the King was also a surprising move. Tony Leung, however, gets no love from western movie goers. In a movie dominated by Chow Yun Fat, he’s by far the most sympathetic character in the show and without a doubt the reason he wound up playing a very, very similar role in the incredible Infernal Affairs (also with Anthony Wong). While anyone can sneer and leap through the air, all guns blazing, Leung’s Alan character is played with a subtlety not frequently found in Hong Kong action. Anyone else would have draped this character in melodrama and overacting but Leung, given equal time flying through the air shooting people, gives him a realistic bent that makes you feel for him. Every move he makes in the services of the police as a fake Triad puts him that much closer to falling over the edge, evident in the scene where he’s called on to kill Uncle Hoi.
Anthony Wong is a favorite actor of mine and he seems to wind up in every movie out of Hong Kong that I wind up seeing. Though he’s been given plenty of opportunities to play good guys, he’s probably best known for his villains. In the early 90’s he got plenty of practice acting as fucking psychopaths in a seemingly endless parade of downright evil Cat3 movies. Johnny Wong may not be as sociopathic as the characters from Untold Story or Ebola virus, but this guy is an animal. Throughout the movie they keep pushing the limits of how bad he can be. His right-hand man, Mad Dog, a psycho in his own right, even stops toward the end to let him know how bad he is.
Finally, John Woo lays the action on you like never before. Hard Boiled marked the high point in his career and before he shipped out the US where his skills as a filmmaker would go to waste, he gives you the sort of action finale that few movies can offer. A thirty minute gun fight in a hospital closes the movie as Alan and Tequila team up against Johnny Wong for the last time. It plays out like symphony, starting you off slowly as Tequila and Alan find the weapons cache that Johnny has been hiding. It builds to a crescendo as Johnny’s men move in and take hostages including the police on the scene. Tequila and Alan move through hallways, shooting anything that moves. The action breaks off into movements as Tequila helps get hostages (namely, babies) out to safety and Alan faces down Johnn’y unstoppable machine, Mad Dog. Finally, the wave crashes, the symphony winds down and Tequila and Alan will face Johnny at the close of the symphony. It’s a genuinely beautiful thing and a technique that no filmmaker on earth has ever been able to match.
I could go on and on about how western filmmakers have taken on the crazy two gun style of Woo’s action but completely fail to tell the kind of story, with the pacing of an orchestra conductor, but the point is moot. If there is one thing I want to get across is that no matter how many imitators in Hong Kong and otherwise, no one has or ever will make a movie like this. Hard Boiled is one of a kind.