Jazz-loving Hong Kong cop Inspector “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) uncovers a gun-running ring at a crowded dim sum restaurant, but loses his partner Lionheart (Au-Yeung Jan-Wa) when the place erupts in an apocalyptic shootout. Reprimanded by his stressed out boss, Police Chief Pang (Philip Chan Yan-Kin, a real-life officer in the HKPD who moonlights as a movie actor!), Tequila is more curious why every day his estranged girlfriend and fellow police inspector, Madam (comedienne Teresa Mo) receives floral bouquets containing coded musical messages. Meanwhile, sharp-dressed hitman Tony (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) executes a turncoat triad at a local library, on the orders of honorable crime boss Mr. Hoi (Kwan Hoi-San). Young triad boss-on-the-rise, Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong) pressures Tony to switch sides and betray his aging employer. Angst-ridden Tony duly does so at a warehouse ambush led by Johnny’s top gun, the formidable Mad Dog (Shaw Brothers legend Philip Kwok Tsui, also the action choreographer). But Johnny’s precise planning unravels when one-man army Tequila rappels down from the ceiling and wipes out half his men, leaving only Tony and himself in a fog-shrouded stand-off. When the cop’s gun clicks empty, the hitman spares his life and Tequila realises the truth: Tony is an undercover cop.
For his farewell to Hong Kong cinema, action auteur John Woo fittingly chose to go out with one heck of a big bang. Hard Boiled distils the essence of his unique brand of action cinema into two adrenalin-fuelled hours of glorious gunplay, jaw-dropping stuntwork, amazing tracking shots, virtuoso staging and editing by Woo himself and polymath actor-director-editor David Wu. Even the non-action sequences are inspired. Check out Tequila’s near-psychic intuition as he retraces Tony’s steps at the library. Set in the then near-future year of 1997, the film is an allegorical commentary on pre-handover anxieties. In the wake of the massacre in Tiananmen Square and an increasing in criminal activity, Hong Kong’s citizens worried they would find themselves caught between ruthless Capitalist gangsters (“People admire success, not how you made it there", runs Johnny’s credo) and the grinding machinations of a militant state. Right from the first set-piece, Woo bombards us with images of innocent people gunned down by the dozens.
Self-sacrifice and the need to protect innocent life are key themes. Both Tequila and Tony are seeking redemption having inadvertently killed undercover cops. Even the relentless Mad Dog, by whose name we wrongly peg as a psychotic killer, lays down his life to uphold a moral principle. Tony fashions a paper crane as a reminder of every life he takes and howls his anguish against a roaring sea. Tequila confides in John Woo himself, in his onscreen alter-ego as a friendly bartender, but finds redemption - in the film’s most infamous scene (part of the iconic poster) - as he rescues a newborn baby from a burning maternity ward. And anyone who does not know the particulars of this highly amusing scene should best discover it themselves.
Assembled almost like a greatest hits package, the imagery evokes highpoints from past Woo classics. Chow enters the scene chewing a toothpick familiar from his iconic role in A Better Tomorrow (1986) and the tense standoff between him and Tony Leung subverts the famous image from The Killer (1989). Woo revisits his favourite themes of brotherhood, honour and loyalty, but gradually and cleverly moves away from these to embrace notions of fatherhood and family, taking a more optimistic view of the future and also anticipating the tone of his worthiest American film (to date), Face/Off (1997). His heroes prove simultaneously superhuman and deeply humane, which is one reason why even his staunchest detractors can never entirely dismiss him as a purveyor of mindless action. But of course action is the whole reason fans flocked to the temple of Woo in the first place. Strangely, at the time the film was more readily embraced by the mainstream. More seasoned Hong Kong film fanatics felt Woo had lapsed into a parody of himself, which now seems ludicrous given the sheer virtuosity on display: the staccato rhythms of the restaurant shootout; the almost carnivalesque swirling chaos of the warehouse ambush; and the legendary extended hospital sequence that takes up the entire third act and outguns a dozen Die Hard (1988) sequels, are among the most impeccably crafted action sequences in cinema history. All the more remarkable for some big name stars risking life and limb without the benefit of insurance! In fact relations were strained between Woo and his favourite leading man when Chow incurred an injury on the set. This might explain why the pair never worked together again, although Woo produced such Chow vehicles as Peace Hotel (1994) and Bulletproof Monk (2002).
Chow burns bright with effortless cool as he runs the gamut from light comedy to screen-searing intensity, while Tony Leung Chiu-wai conveys layers of angst with his astonishing performance. Watch how his face switches from cocky to sorrow and self-hatred when he guns down his fatherly boss and all his friends. From that first splash of tequila into a shot glass to the climactic exploding eyeball, Hard Boiled mesmerises from start to finish, but the cherry on the cake is an open-ended closing shot that depends entirely upon how the viewer chooses to interpret it.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.