“Give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.”
When Clint Eastwood uttered his famous line “Go ahead… make my day,” in Sudden Impact in 1983, vigilante cop justice on screen had hit an all time high. Virtually created by Clint in 1975’s Dirty Harry the vigilante cop movie became a staple of action cinema throughout the late 70’s all the way into the early nineties. From blockbuster franchises such as the Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard series to entries from action icons like Charles Bronson in 10 to Midnight,cops on screen were taking the law into their own hands and taking down the scum of the cities single handedly. While the “cop on the edge” is now a cinematic cliche to roll your eyes at, with few exceptions such as FX’s The Shied and Ray Liotta’s Henry Oak in 2002’s Narc, there was a time when they stood proud, saluted and then kicked your teeth in. In 1992, on a little island off the coast of China, film director John Woo, unknown to most filmgoers at the time, made the most over the top example of this sub genre ever conceived. Its star… Chow Yun Fat. The film’s name…Hard Boiled. Its premise was so simple that if someone brought an outline of the script to one of The Shield’s producers, they would probably tear it up and fire that person on the spot. The film doesn’t feature complicated twists, multiple storylines or Oscar worthy drama. What it does offer are some of the most amazing action sequences ever put on film, and for Woo fans that’s all they needed.
Hard Boiled’s story centers around two characters. The first is Tequila, played by Woo’s leading man Chow Yun Fat, the Clint Eastwood of Chinese cinema. Yun Fat had already made a huge career at this point in gangster epics such as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and City on Fire. The man was a sensation in the East and rivaled action king Jackie Chan in popularity. Yun Fat had the charisma of Carey Grant, Mel Gibson’s humor, and the ass kicking ability of Charles Bronson. Made famous in Woo’s first major crime film, A Better Tomorrow, Yun Fat, ended up winning best actor for the film even though he was only a supporting character. Chow Yun Fat was so popular that when A Better Tomorrow Part 2 was put together by director Woo and producer Tsui Hark, the fans in Hong Kong demanded he be in the sequel even though his character, Mark Gor, had actually died at the end of the first installment. To the Fan’s delight, Woo and Hark came up with a solution…Ken Gor, Mark’s twin brother. Even though this may have been questionable storytelling, Woo’s direction along with Yun Fat’s performnce as well as the sequal’s amazing finale of guns, swords, and grenades came complete with a ticket to action cinema history.
Even though he was not the main focus in either film, Yun Fat’s popularity established him as the Deniro to Woo’s Scorcese. Both films were immensely popular and would propel their actor and director to future success in the crime genre. Yun Fat would go on to star in City on Fire, the story of an undercover cop infiltrating a gang of jewel thieves, only to be shot while the big heist goes down. If this plot sounds familiar, City on Fire was actually the basis for Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs with Yun Fat’s character as the blueprint for Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange. The actor became so popular in Hong Kong that his signature trench coat and sunglasses from A Better Tomorrow, later a staple of Woo films in general, were worn on the streets of Hong Kong by fans of the film and real life Triads alike. This may not seem like a big deal, but consider this the equivalent of a fan liking Neo from The Matrix so much that they would wear his trench coat-dress “thing” in the middle of Hawaii. That is movie geek idolization personified.
The actor would then raise the stakes of his hero worship in what most consider John Woo’s signature movie up to that point, The Killer. A story of dichotomy as Woo’s leading man played Jeffery, a hitman with a code of honor who is hunted by Inspector Li, a renegade cop played by Danny Lee. The Killer was an international success as Chow and Lee lit up the screen with both guns a’blazin’. To those mostly uninitiated to John Woo’s style, The Killer was a wakeup call for action fans everywhere. Bodies flew, bullets burst, and guns were never reloaded. The Killer had more action than any fan of the genre could have hoped for, but that wasn’t all. The Killer had an emotional core that was brought out by Yun Fat’s soulful performance. Unlike the shallow examples of today’s action heroes, The Killer made you care about what was going on and the audience that sat through it was rewarded with gunplay that was unmatched at that time.
This all lead up to Chow Yun Fat’s performance of vigilante cop Tequila in Hard Boiled. For those wondering how tough Tequila is, if you compared Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon to seltzer water, Chow Yun Fat’s character would be well…Tequila. Woo considered Tequila the response to the rising number of Mafioso’s in Hong Kong. The director made Tequila the ultimate action hero. The personification of the “Cop on the Edge”, Tequila takes down villains by the dozen, can’t keep a girlfriend, gets his partner shot, and ends up getting thrown off the case by his Police Captain. He of course ends up breaking the case wide open, and decides to storm the enemy hideout where he sends Hong Kong Triads packing.
The second performance of the film is Tony Leung as Alan. Leung is today one of Hong Kong’s brightest stars. Known more for dramatic acting than action cinema, Leung is a passionate actor that shows off his great range in the diversity of roles he chooses. His noteworthy performance in Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love won him Best Actor at the Cannes Films festival in 2000. His character, Chow Mo-wan, in that film is a man in a loveless marriage that longs for the affections of his neighbor, played by Maggie Cheung. A victim of his unrequited love, Chow Mo-wan is one of the most sympathetic characters that have been on screen in some time. The award winning actress and Leung teamed up again in Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which featured an amazing action cast of Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. Hero is a fantastic martial arts film in the same league as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Leung’s performance is sorrowful and yet full of power. We as the audience believe in his convictions and marvel at his swordplay as Leung outshines his action hero co stars with a subtale performance, making him the soul of the movie. Prior to Hard Boiled Leung had also previously worked with Woo in his Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head, which many critics note as the greatest Hong Kong film in history.
The most underrated role of the actor’s career is perhaps Hard Boiled‘s second, darker hero. Leung’s intensity on screen shines through undercover cop Alan. Forced to become an outsider of the law, you can feel Alan slipping further and further away from his true self as he becomes the contract killer he has to portray to survive in Hong Kong’s underworld. To get the scumbags that are at the head of a huge gang war, Alan has to betray and execute men he’s allied himself with. Some of the men he has actually grown to respect, and butchering them kills a part of his own conscience each time. Alan is half the man he once was when Tequila is eventually put on his trail. The rest is the most chaotic and over the top piece of action cinema ever.
To put the film in perspective, there is a higher body count in Hard Boiled than in the entire Lethal Weapon, Dirty Harry, and Robocop series combined. Around 250-300 onscreen deaths are recorded onscreen in Woo’s film. The only contemporary action film that comes close is Die Hard 2: Die Harder which has about 230 onscreen deaths, but many of those are garnered through a plane crash. The film also has an energy that is unmatched in American action cinema. There is a sequence in the middle of the film in which Yun Fat’s Tequila launches a one man assault on an army of gangsters in a gun warehouse. In an instant the scene goes from a solemn, silent moment to an orgy of slow motion shotguns, exploding motorcycles, and Triads getting “smoked”. The stunt work in this portion of the film is incredible. Not only is Chow Yun Fat doing most of his own stunts as he dodges bikes and near-head explosions, but the stunt men on this film are required to rides those same bikes as they explode, fall off ledge after ledge and do things to cars that they were never intended for. For those who don’t know, stunt men in the Hong Kong film industry are paid year round as opposed to a stunt by stunt basis. The down side of this is that when John Woo asks you to stand there as a motorcycle comes flying at you at 60 miles an hour, you have to stand there and make it look good. At the end of the action, you’re left with a pile of bodies and a dejected Tequila, ashamed for not getting all he came for. On top of that, the discovery of Alan’s identity makes him very wary indeed.
There are three major action set pieces in Woo’s film. The first is in a Hong Kong Tea House with its highlight being the film’s signature moment, Chow Yun Fat sliding down a banister, a pistol in each hand and several dead villains when he reaches the bottom. The sequence ends with Tequila blowing away an uzi-packingTriad point blank after watching his partner die in a hail of gunfire. The Triad’s blood contrasting with the mask of flour on Tequila’s face serves as an exclamation point on a remarkable introduction to the film’s style of action. The second sequence of the film is the aforementioned warehouse shootout where Alan has to cut his ties to men who thought him their brother in arms. This all build’s up to the final showdown of Triads and supercops.
Hard Boiled ends in a violent climax unsurpassed in action cinema. The final assault on the enemy stronghold lasts for 40 minutes of screen time. The hideout for gang leader Johnny Wong, played by Hong Kong veteran actor Anthony Wong, is discovered in the basement of a hospital as Alan and Tequila team up in the most action packed symbiotic partnership of all time. Both work together to bring about their own brand of justice as Tequila aims to get revenge for his partner and Alan looks for redemption. Once again the stunt work is first rate as police officers attempt to rescue the hostages inside the hospital that Wong’s forces have now taken over. Officers and Triads are shot at and dodging everything from revolvers to grenade launchers to give the audience an action experience to remember. For a gunfight fan there is no assault like the one in this film. Over and over Tequila and Alan plow through a seemingly unending stream of gangsters. The finale involving a baby, Chow Yun Fat jumping through a window and what seems like 2000 pounds of dynamite, is a sight to behold. All leading up to Tequila and Wong facing off with Alan’s life in the balance as both cops have to decide whether their life is worth the price of salvation.
While the film’s plot is very standard, the action and acting in the film are exceptional for this type of film. Woo’s influence on action cinema can be felt from the slow motion gunplay of the The Matrix to the duel pistol bloodbaths of Reservoir Dogs and Desperado. Woo’s violence is not the ugly splatter-fests of Natural Born Killers or the Bad Boys series. Woo brought a violent poetry to cinema. His films are ballets of .45’s and Uzi’s. Woo has always tried to not portray violence for the sake of it, but bring a meaning out of it. His heroes are men with a moral code, not killing for sport.
Hard Boiled represented a need for Woo to give his audience a hero that was on the side of the law. His heroes in the past were always men of honor, but almost always gangsters. After Woo’s films came out, many youths actually turned to crime in tribute. A distinction Woo never wanted. Hard Boiled was the answer to that. Chow Yun Fat’s Tequila is out to bring justice to the streets any way possible. He is a man on the side of good, even if it costs him personally his friends, loved ones and reputation. Tony Leung’s Alan is a man fighting the demons inside of him to stay on the side of good. In the end his deliverance from evil may cost him even more than Tequila. These are the heroes Woo wanted to bring to the screen. The characters are both a cliche on the surface, but underneath are masterful performances by two of Asia’s greatest actors. Hard Boiled is everything you could want from an American cop movie, but it is everything an American cop movie has never been.