John Woo’s Hard Boiled is a Sam Peckinpah western transported to modern day Hong Kong, where fierce gun battles transform into stunning ballets of blood and death. The action is intense, leaving a body count that places the film at #4 on the “Most On Screen Deaths” chart. While its story is the stuff of cops-and-robbers B-movies, the technical mastery exhibited in Hard Boiled elevates it to one of the greatest actions films ever made.
Chinese gangsters are smuggling guns. The police thwart one transaction at a teahouse, a fantastic action sequence that hooks the viewer and makes it clear that this is no typical crime film. Unfortunately, it came at a very high price as not only does it cost Tequila (Chow Yun Fat), a jazz-playing, hard-drinking police officer his partner, but in the confusion he killed a fellow officer and has to live with that guilt. He swears vengeance on the people responsible, ignoring the protests of his superintendent. However, Tequila makes reckless decisions as he goes it alone.
The illegal gun trade is being fought over between two Chinese gangs. Mr. Hoi has been in the rackets for a while, but brash up-and-comer Johnny Wong is getting Hoi’s people to turn on him. Alan (Tony Leung) tries to play both sides, but when Wong’s men show up to steal Hoi’s shipment at the docks, he is forced to kill Hoi who was a father figure to him. Then before anyone can react, Tequila appears hurling smoke bombs and firing a machine gun. During the ensuing madness, Alan and Tequila meet face-to-face, guns drawn. Tequila shoots first, but is out of bullets. Alan smiles and walks away. Tequila discovers an unexpected ally, and together they work to take down Wong and his gang whose base of operations is hidden underneath a hospital.
Released in 1992, Hard Boiled is the last Hong Kong film by John Woo before he went to Hollywood. He wanted to make a film that glorified the police after accusations his previous films glorified gangsters. It is a great swan song as it set a high standard. Not only has it affected filmmakers, but you can see its influence in first-person shooter games as well. The film also demonstrates how real special effects add danger and suspense that is utterly lost with CGI.
Dragon Dynasty presents a new version of the DVD. Special features include a commentary track by Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan. He is engaging and not too stuffy like some film historians. He covers a lot of areas of interest and even suggests a funny drinking game whereby the viewer takes a drink of Jack Daniels every time Anthony Wong appears in a different primary-colored jacket. He also talks about the upcoming Woo film, Red Cliff, which was supposed to star both lead actors until Chow Yun Fat unfortunately dropped out.
There is also a 38-minute interview featurette with director Woo as well as other interviews with Producer Terence Change, co-stars Philip Chan, Tequila’s boss, and Kwok Choi, the villain with a code. All these segments use dubbed scenes instead of subtitled. The DVD audio is available in English and Cantonese and subtitles are in English and Spanish.
Close to the end of the picture is the film’s defining moment. Chapter 15 on the DVD features the brilliant single-take action sequence that deserves to be mentioned alongside and might even best Welles’ Touch of Evil, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and Altman’s The Player in terms of difficulty. It’s not just the staging of the action in the shot, the speed of the film is changed during the shot and there’s a dramatic moment for the actors after a cop is accidentally shot. It’s very well done and is the main reason why my only disappointment with the DVD is that there is no commentary from Woo, like the one he did for The Criterion Collection’s version of the disc that is now out of print. Learning about how the shot was created would have been very interesting.