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Hard Boiled: Why John Woo’s Masterpiece is Still the Greatest Action Movie of All Time

While the 1980s might generally be considered the heyday of the action movie, or at least the decade with the biggest wealth of nostalgia attached to it, the 1990s was an equal, arguably better decade for high octane, high concept celluloid. Action classics were hitting us left, right and centre and these films were made all the better for their unspoken but collectively loose regard for believability.

From Kathryn Bigelow’s gloriously over-the-top, but irresistible Point Break (1991), via Craig R. Baxley’s underseen masterwork Stone Cold (1991), to Stallone’s underrated mountaineering survival/heist combo Cliffhanger (1993), the 1990s gave us some of the all-time greats.

But action movie genius was not simply the preserve of Hollywood. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s Hong Kong had been delivering its own brand of stylish, action thriller. Typically centring on a classic anti-hero, criminal gang member, and characterised by bloody, excessive violence and firearm heavy action. These films came to be known as Heroic Bloodshed, a term invented by Rick Baker in Eastern Heroes magazine. Although the Heroic Bloodshed genre has come to comprise a raft of movies, spanning several decades, it is chiefly identified and was indeed coined in reference to, the late 80s and early 90s output of John Woo and Ringo Lam.

Lam, who sadly passed away in December 2018, directed Heroic Bloodshed essentials City On Fire (1987) and Full Contact (1992), while Woo’s prolificacy from the mid-80s onwards made his name synonymous with slow motion action, double gun wielding protagonists and a lot of agitated, flappy birds. He delivered several outright classics in the form of A Better Tomorrow (1986), Bullet In The Head (1990) and The Killer (1989) before his undoubted masterpiece, and the subject of this particular love letter, Hard Boiled (1992).

Hard Boiled a.k.a God of Guns a.k.a. Ruthless Super-Cop, sees tough, play-by-his-own-rules cop, Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen (Chow Yun Fat) on the trail of underworld gun runners led by the evil Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong). Unbeknownst to Tequila, one of Johnny Wong’s lieutenants, Alan (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), is an undercover cop who has infiltrated the gang to such a degree that he behaves exactly as a genuine gang member. Justifying homicide in the service of a greater good. Not only that, but Alan’s undercover operation is being run in total secrecy by Tequila’s own boss, Superintendent Pang (played by real life ex-policeman Philp Chan). 

Duality

As Tequila’s investigation continues, Woo not only gives us thundering, jaw dropping action, but also sophisticated character development, focussing on Tequila and Alan’s commonality and illustrating the duality of the investigation, with Tequila on one side of the law and Alan the other – but with little to separate the two men in terms of their approach or ultimate goal. It’s a classic two-sides-of-the-same coin story and Hard Boiled is initially in similar territory to Michel Mann’s L.A. Takedown (1989), and subsequently Heat (1995), wherein two adversaries recognise a kindred spirit in their opponent. A person who might well be friend in another life.  

More obviously, the cop on both sides of the divide, so deeply undercover that his own loyalties are conflicted, is an idea that would be explored masterfully in Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), and by extension, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). It’s hard not to think of Hard Boiled as an influence, such is the similarity, and yet curiously it is a later John Woo movie, Face/Off (1997), that Lau and Mak instead cited as their inspiration.

The similarity between Tequila and Alan is best highlighted in the library scene. Alan is dispatched by his boss Uncle Hoi (Hoi-San Kwan) to assassinate a traitor, surprising him by using a gun concealed inside a library book. We join Tequila as he works the crime scene, uncovering the murder weapon by matching a rectangle of dried blood to the book on the shelf. Woo uses slow motion and intercuts flashbacks to the killing, as Tequila mirrors Alan’s movements. It illustrates not only Tequila’s deductive prowess, but also how the two men think alike.

Action

John Woo’s previous movies, although extremely popular in Hong Kong and abroad, had nonetheless attracted criticism for glamourizing criminality. With Hard Boiled Woo set out to address this criticism and make a movie about a tough cop in the Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen vein.  

Screenwriter Barry Wong passed away prior to filming, with only part of the Hard Boiled script completed. With the producers deciding to drop an unpalatable plot involving a baby poisoner, the story was rewritten in favour of the underworld gun runners. The script was still being written during filming and incredibly, the sublime opening of the movie – a chaotic and bloody shoot out in a tea house – was filmed without any script at all.

The tea house sequence sets the standard for what is to come. It is an unreal, kinetic maelstrom of bloody, bullet pulping carnage that would make Paul Verhoeven blush. Not only is it thrilling to watch, but Woo’s hyper stylish M.O. means the visuals are striking. Cops and bad guys fly through the air, shit explodes everywhere, and Chow Yun Fat slides down a bannister, shooting all the gang members as if it’s the most normal thing in the world… instead of the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.

The scene culminates in Tequila getting smothered with white flour as he ducks and dives through a restaurant kitchen. The sole purpose is to create jolting contrast when the action ends in a showdown, with Tequila exacting bloody revenge on a gang member. Tequila ends up covered in the grisly blood spatter of his opponent. The vivid red is visceral and alarming when shown off against the dusty, blank canvas of his face.

Next up is the warehouse raid where Johnny Wong seizes control of the Triad gangs. Black clad motorcyclists swarm the area, firing off unlimited rounds, more shit explodes, insane slow motion stunt craziness occurs and cops abseil from the roof as everything goes ballistic. 

Just like the tea house opening, the warehouse raid culminates with another tense showdown. This time it’s a Mexican standoff between Tequila and Alan, which is a cue for Woo to give us tight close ups of the grimacing adversaries as Alan gets the drop on Tequila but lets him go. The scene is completely dialogue free and yet it feels like the complete opposite. Both Tony Leung and Chow Yun Fat deliver everything they need with squinted stares and crinkled foreheads and it ends, of course, with slow motion – Tequila slamming the empty shells out of his revolver in disgust.

Another excellent piece of unscripted work was Woo’s decision include a more physical villain to combat Tequila and Alan.  Philip Kwok (Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok), whose lengthy filmography combines both acting and stunt work, including the Brosnan-era Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and cult favourite Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), was already working as the action coordinator on Hard Boiled. Kwok was cast as the eyepatch wearing maniac Mad Dog, lighting cigars off flaming cars, and gunning down whoever Johnny Wong instructs without the faintest glimmer of conscience, and he’s one of Hard Boiled’s most memorable characters.

Cast-wise, it’s also fun to note that John Woo cameos in the film as the bartender in the jazz club where Tequila regularly toots about on his clarinet. In addition to bloodily dispatching underworld chumps for a day job, Tequila likes to kick back after work and play some smooth jazz, all while looking cooler than you’ve ever done in your entire life. 

Additionally, Michael Gibbs steelpan and woodwind heavy soundtrack makes for the perfect nervy accompaniment to Hard Boiled’s simmering tension and chaotic action. It sits in a similar ballpark to James Horner’s excellent score from another action classic, Commando (1985), which also utilises the rhythmic steelpan to underscore mass carnage.
Hard Boiled ends, as only it can, by raising the stakes even further. The film culminates in a hospital where Johnny Wong is running guns out of the basement. The gang is holed up inside with hostages and the police mount a raid. Aside from yet more astounding set pieces – including a window leap that ups the ante on Die Hard (1988) by involving a newborn baby – Woo is not content to let it pass as a standard attack-the-bad-guy’s-base finale. Instead, he throws in a surprising dose of reality when Alan believes he has shot a cop during the chaos of the hospital incursion. With guilt threatening to overcome Alan, Tequila reassures him it was just another bad guy, but Woo makes sure the incident is replayed so we, the audience, are left in no doubt. It’s an intriguing, heavyweight addition to the fast paced action. Offering yet more moral ambiguity in terms of our heroes’ interactions with others, yet further cementing their morality in terms of the greater good. Tequila knows that losing Alan’s focus could result in defeat and a far greater loss of life.

Home Entertainment and the Infamous Taiwanese Cut

Frustratingly, Hard Boiled has a long and ugly history of sub-par home entertainment releases, with even the Criterion edition being relatively light on supplementary material.  Several releases were cut for violence, including the original U.K. release on Tartan, and two in Germany, which explains the ‘uncut’ tag seen on some later releases. Additionally, several versions are known to feature subtitles based off the English language dub of the film – known colloquially as ‘dubtitles’ – rather than direct translations from the original dialogue. 

To further compound matters, there is a longer running Taiwanese cut of the movie that is also sometimes referred to as an ‘uncut’ version. Although concrete information on this version is slight, dvdcompare website claims it has its origin as a preview screening, shown at a festival before Woo had finalised his cut of the film. Therefore, it is important to note that the Taiwanese cut is not director approved and the theatrical cut remains the definitive version of Hard Boiled.

In terms of notable differences between the Taiwanese cut and the theatrical version, it is claimed there is additional footage at the beginning and end of the non-action scenes. But due to the Taiwanese cut being sourced from a master that was in two parts, there is a black screen in the middle of the film that lasts for approximately five minutes and accounts for the majority of the extended run time. However, a seller on Amazon.com claims the hospital evacuation scene at the end of the film is longer, a fact corroborated by the website dvdbeaver (citing the now defunct asiandvdguide message boards as its source), and totals the extra non-black screen footage at five minutes. While dvdcompare estimates the extra footage clocks in at four minutes.

While many of the different releases are still available second hand and in various corners of the internet, the only current release of Hard Boiled is Dragon Dynasty’s Ultimate Edition Blu-ray which has a pretty mixed reception amongst fans. Suffice it to say, Woo’s masterpiece is crying out for a definitive, cleaned up edition that at the very least compiles all the available extras. 

Stranglehold

In 2007 a video game sequel, Stranglehold, was released that saw Chow Yun Fat reprise the role of Tequila, with John Woo and long-time producing partner Terence Chang on board in a producing capacity. Available on PC, Playstation 3 and xBox 360 Stranglehold represented John Woo and Chow Yun Fat’s first collaboration together since Hard Boiled.  

The limited PS3 collectors’ edition came packaged with a remastered blu ray of Hard Boiled that in a bizarre turn of events, was only playable on a Playstation 3 console due to licensing restrictions. The rights owners did not want fans buying Stranglehold merely to access Hard Boiled, as they feared it would harm sales of a planned future blu ray release (the 2007 Dragon Dynasty version).

After Hard Boiled

With a budget of $4.5 million, Hard Boiled would not only herald the culmination of John Woo’s Hong Kong action days, but also his last film there for nearly twenty years.

Woo’s Hollywood debut, Hard Target (1993), made on a significantly higher budget of $19.5 million, stars a mega-permed Jean Claude Van Damme and a scenery chewing Lance Henriksen, and is another of the 90s choicest action morsels. Woo is clearly of the opinion that if something is cool the first time, then it’s cool every time, as he made sure to include every great idea he ever had – black clad bikers with Uzis, trademark double gun action, slow motion flocks of annoyed birds. Woo also wrests a career best performance out of Jean-Claude Van Damme, making Hard Target the greatest of his Hollywood output and despite its offensively low critical rankings, it sits comfortably alongside his more revered Hong Kong work.

John Woo’s Hollywood catalogue is completed by the hugely enjoyable and underrated action adventure, Broken Arrow (1996), the best film in the Mission Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), World War 2 adventure Windtalkers (2002) and the poorly received science fiction thriller Paycheck (2003). Woo also directed the made-for-tv action movie Blackjack (1998) starring Dolph Lundgren. Despite its great premise – Lundgren’s professional bodyguard develops a phobia of the colour white, after fighting a bad guy in a pool of milk, spilled from an overturned tanker – and a gunfight on a trampoline, Blackjack fails to really get going.

The most beloved of John Woo’s Hollywood movies must be Face/Off. It’s a magnificently absurd study in action excess, with Nicolas Cage and John Travolta exchanging faces and big performances, in a cat-and mouse, sci-fi, crime thriller. It’s a film that is best enjoyed with a smile, because it’s one hell of a good time. 

John Woo left Hollywood to return to Hong Kong, focussing on historical epics for the better part of the last decade, with Red Cliff (2008), Reign Of Assassins (2010) and The Crossing (2014). However, he revisited his action roots recently with action thriller Manhunt (2017), which made its debut on streaming giant Netflix.

So while Hard Boiled wasn’t John Woo’s last great film, it’s certainly still his greatest, with its influence still felt in action cinema today. The Matrix and John Wick franchises, in particular, would look very different without Hard Boiled. Mr Wick’s extremely violent combat and the team of motorcycle thugs sent to take him down in the latest instalment, John Wick: Parabellum (2019), owe a clear debt to John Woo’s finest. Additionally both Quentin Tarantino and Michael Bay’s filmographies hold their own Woo influences. Tarantino is a well-documented fan and although Michael Bay has never outright credited his influence, it seems highly unlikely that the iconic ‘Bay-hem’ (love it or hate it) would exist in the same form without Bay having had one eye on what Woo was up to in the 80s and 90s. 

We certainly can’t claim that Hard Boiled is an unknown gem, or even that it’s been forgotten about. But it would be fair to still consider it a cult movie given the initially fervent popularity among action fans and subsequent breakout appeal. It might also be fair to suggest Hard Boiled has dropped out of the conversation a little bit in terms of the greatest action movies of all time. Even when discussing Woo’s filmography it is, more often than not, The Killer that takes the top spot. Which is not to take anything away from The Killer, itself a phenomenal movie. It’s just that Hard Boiled is better.

Hard Boiled’s combination of style, action and complex characterization is unbeatable. It raised the bar and blew my tiny, teenage mind when it was released. In the twenty-seven years since, there hasn’t been an action movie close to the combined levels of stunts, ingenuity and unflappable cool that John Woo put up on screen. Simply put, Hard Boiled is 128 minutes of pure action cinema perfection.

About Adam Fleet

Adam Fleet is a film nerd, record collector, comic book enthusiast, punk rocker. Originally from the UK but based in Melbourne, Australia he also writes for Screen Realm and has written for Junkee and the Rue Morgue website. He also writes short fiction and tweets/Instagrams at @adamfleetmovies.

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