Tony Leung Chiu-wai
2 Hrs., 8 Mins.
Hard Boiled January 24, 2020
When Woo set out to make the film, which followed his gangster-smitten thrillers A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killers (1989), he aspired to craft something more in line with Dirty Harry (1971), the corrupted-cop movie obsessed with the right-wing taking-the-law-into-their-own-hands adage. If Woo’s 1980s movies sought to give criminal life a sensual charge like in Martin Scorsese’s mob melodramas, Hard Boiled — which circles around two cops (one an inspector, one deep undercover) — was to be their ‘90s law-enforcement equivalent.
Hard Boiled has a plot similar to the more-famous Infernal Affairs (2002). (Which was remade, in the mid-2000s, by Scorsese as The Departed.) But it isn’t, to my eye, a meditation on the institutionalized problems instilled in law enforcement as Infernal Affairs partially was, though. The good-cop-bad-cop dichotomy in the latter movie was what seemed to be a simulacrum; Hard Boiled is too self-obsessing and foam-mouthed to feel that way.
If we are to talk about the narrative of Hard Boiled, it’s a simple enough one. A police inspector named Tequila (Chow Yun-fat), mourning the loss of his partner by the hands of triad members, joins forces with an undercover cop who has infiltrated that triad subsection, Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). They are intent on trouncing wannabe leader Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong), who is in the process of chaotically ousting the current crime patriarch.
The first part of the film is dedicated to establishing the anti-heroes separately: how Tequila’s grief has rendered him increasingly precipitous; how Alan’s messy working life is more and more complicating his feelings. We know Tequila's in for trouble when he shoots a prospective witness from the triad point-blank in the heat of the moment. In early scenes, Alan, named after the French gangster-movie staple Alain Delon, has a wily easygoingness to him — like he’s sometimes even enjoying what he’s doing, as opposed to the visibly tortured undercover cop Leung played in Infernal Affairs.
With Hard Boiled, Woo has found a new milieu inside which he can let his action sequences move and breathe. The film is preeminently about its gun battles and fight choreography, not so much its story. The plotting is involving and has the sufficient, pleasantly by-the-numbers lift of a procedural. But it’s when the movie is making a lot of noise that we’re most entranced by it — case in point with the satisfactorily over-the-top final stretch, which is an extended showdown replete with semiautomatics and bombs at a hospital. (If this eyeful wasn’t dramatic enough, Woo concocts a big subplot about how all the babies in the maternity ward need to be evacuated in the meantime.)
Tequila, as an anti-hero, is a ham more than willing to stand up to his superiors, gnashing his words like gum. He thinks he’s always right, and though we’d like to see him be someday really humbled he winds up right (in the movie’s view) anyway. And Alan is a guy who seems to me someone who gets the tingles even when he’s having to do stuff he’d rather not — a stance that gets shaken up. He’s a dedicated officer up for almost anything as long as in his purview, justice is ultimately served. (That doesn’t mean he doesn’t stop once in a while and look askance.) Tequila and Alan have an affable interplay; their flirtations with dementia compare.
The lead-up in Hard Boiled is nicely keyed-up; there’s a crescendo in the way the tension moves upward as Tequila and Alan get closer to bumping elbows. Once the characters have clicked, though, the movie gears up. It seems not only to have turned on the ignition but also figured out how quickly it can go to maximum speed. Soon it stays there. Hard Boiled doesn’t run out of gas — that is unless you count the release that arrives with the inevitable "good"-guys-winning finale.
This is great action filmmaking; Woo is a giddy showman who makes a strong case for the wonders of habitual slow motion and weapons that go off with such bluster that they double as fog machines. His excitement is a luster on his images. When the final bullet escapes its chamber in Hard Boiled, I laughed and clapped. Not because of the liberation itself but because of how Woo shows us what the slug has done to its target. The presentation’s pretty audacious. A
ost action movies are audacious in spurts. John Woo's Hard Boiled (1992) is exciting because it's almost all audacity. We watch it with disbelief; the bangs and explosions and gymnastic leaps out of a bullet's path are presented to us with such exquisite vulgarity that we look forward to how Woo is going to shock us next. It doesn’t matter as much where the storyline is or where it's going.