More noise than signal

Hard Boiled

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

There’s a passing fad of John Woo bashing since he upped sticks and flew to Hollywood. While I’d defend him in as much as he hasn’t made a truly bad movie in the last few years, it’s also fair to say that with the possible exception of Face/Off he’s never captured the magic and dynamics of his earlier works. His most recent Paycheck is arguably his most lacklustre flick of recent years but even that maintains a constant level of watchability. Perhaps the reason so many dismiss his latest films as rotten stems from a sense of disappointment; that we know he’s capable of better. We know this because we’ve seen Hard Boiled, or Lashou shentan in its mother tongue.

There is a plot, and I suppose I ought to at least mention it in passing. Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) is a veteran member of the Hong Kong police department, although his take-no-prisoners attitude rankles with his boss, Supt. Pang (Philip Chan). Working on a case to break a Triad gun-running syndicate headed by the ruthless Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong), an initial bust inside a birdcage bedecked teahouse goes disastrously wrong and gives the first taster of just how many people, innocent or otherwise are going to be killed over the course of this film. After the dust and bullet casings settle, a furious Pang kicks Tequila off the case. Partly this is because he’s managed to infiltrate an undercover cop, Tony (Tony Leung) into the crime syndicate but he needs more time to gather crucial evidence and Tequila is getting to close for comfort. Of course, Tequila doesn’t know this and being the hard-boiled cop that he is decides to keep on investigating anyway.

That, in a nutshell is all you really have to know, with Tequila soon figuring Tony for the undercover man after Tony passes on a chance to shoot him in another set-piece raid on a Triad warehouse, and the two eventually team up to take down Johnny Wong and his many, many goons headed by the charmingly named Mad Dog (Philip Kwok). To fulfil the contractually obligated John Woo ‘shootout in a white place’ the final slice of carnage comes in a hospital these crazy criminals have built as a cover for their main armoury. Crikey!

Calling it paper-thin perhaps does the storyline a grandeur it doesn’t deserve, but it’s often the case that in action movies the plot is essentially present only to soak up the time in between the rather more expensive action scenes. Keeping this to a minimum creates perhaps the purest action movie yet seen since Commando.

Routinely tied with The Killer as pretty much everyone’s favourite Woo flick, in my humble opinion at least Hard Boiled contains the distilled, purest essence of Woo’s Heroic Bloodshed genre. Cops, gangsters, a bodycount that’s approximately equal to the multiplicative product of that of every film Arnie’s made and guns. Lot of guns. And tables to dive backwards over with said guns. And Chow Yun-Fat.

Chow is one of Woo’s favourite actors, and with damn good reason. Given the crossover success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his roles in other recent Hollywood efforts, most notably the eminently passable Bulletproof Monk, the name and face ought to be familiar to most in the West. What may not be so self-evident in recent releases is exactly how cool the man is. There were flashes in Bulletproof Monk, and his calm and collected act had a certain charm in CTHD, but you really need to look at Hard Boiled for a masterclass in How To Act Cool With Handguns. Long before the Wachowskis broke out the leather trenchcoats and wound up the Clockwork Reeves, Woo and Chow Yun-Fat was showing anyone foolish enough to stand in their way exactly how graceful and indeed balletic a display of ballistics could be. There’s so much inventive, brutal and plain satisfying violence contained in this film it’s just an absolute joy to watch from the audacious and legendary opening tea-house gambit to the supremely destructive inhospitable hospital finale.

There’s no reason given whatsoever to take this seriously. There are no life changing messages, no astute observations on the human condition. There are none of the tricky, twisty and generally ludicrous plot devices that have become so prevalent of late. There’s very little in the way of the angst and agony that’s seemingly so necessary in even the most basic of action flicks, with the heroes painfully dissecting their actions and choices. This is storytelling at its simplest. There is a Bad Man doing Bad Things. There are Good Men out to stop him. There is a private army of something like two hundred lesser Bad Men who must be overcome. This is Good vs. Evil on a biblical scale, with an almost Disney morality. This perhaps explains it’s lenient Category II rating in it’s native lands, although given the sheer quantity of killing on offer it’s perhaps the easiest 18 rating the BBFC has ever had to give.

The artsy crowd will of course hate it, anathema to their narrow-minded worldview of worthwhile cinema masquerading as broadminded sophistication. Sometimes the true purpose of cinema needs to be nothing more than pure entertainment, and if you’ve ever delighted however guiltily as the evildoers are punished by copious quantities of lead salad this film can only come with the highest recommendation. There’s an almost child-like exuberance to the mayhem that never diminishes on repeat viewing and that’s quite enough to drop this into my ‘classic action movie’ bucket.

With the headlines belonging to Yun-Fat and Woo, it’s easy to overlook the other players although it’s doing them a disservice. While Anthony Wong is certainly an experienced actor perhaps he’s a little underused here, his henchmen perhaps perpetrating too many of the evil acts to take him seriously as the all-action bad dude the finale needs him to be. That’s perhaps harsh, as he still gets the odd moment of menace in and his loss is most certainly Philip Kwok’s gain. Mad Dog is clearly a lieutenant not to be trifled with, breathtakingly efficient in his destructive antics and just as hard-boiled as Tequila ever was. He’s also used to play on the old ‘honour amongst thieves’ theme, giving the final reels an unexpected twists that’s eventually nullified by Wong’s more updated ruthless agenda.

As the co-hero of the piece, a strong performance from the fresh-faced Tony Leung was required and the boy delivers in spades. Still relatively inexperienced here, he nonetheless shows the same calm, collected charisma coupled with an occasional bout of idealism that provides an effective foil for Chow Yun-Fat to play off. Their teamwork in the hospital shootout doesn’t have the same knockabout humour seen in The Killer but it’s effective in it’s own right. Leung would go on to prove himself as one of the most talented actors ever to appear from the HK circuit, and would team up with Anthony Wong again in the superlative Infernal Affairs, which is heading for a cinematic release across the U.K. fairly immanently.

Twelve years is a long time in cinema, and at the time of writing that’s how long it’s been since Hard Boiled since set pulses racing. It’s remarkable exactly how contemporary the action scenes still feel in this flick, only the excess showing it up as a product of a different and as far as action films were concerned better era. This new-found sense of social responsibility that seems to have infected filmmaking in this era of rampant political correctness has produced years of diet-action films without the balls to cut loose or the sense to add anything else to the mix to compensate. This movie may be brainless, but dammit, it’s brainless mayhem with style and that’s become increasingly rare these days. The only thing that dates film is Michael Gibbs’ sax based soundtrack that while undeniably neat in places sounds more like something that ought to have accompany a mid-eighties Arnie adventure.

Really, the only way this film could feasibly be made better would be to recast Anthony Wong with Riki Takeuchi and have a random scene where Jet Li somehow fights a resurrected Bruce Lee, for some reason. In the continued absence of a time travel device we’ll have to take what we can, and boy is this a lot to take.

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