John Woo's Hard Boiled [Lat Sau San Taam] is one of the films that got me into Hong Kong cinema. I had a bit of a bumpy start and didn't really appreciate their tight genre focus at first, but once I found a couple of films that truly went overboard with their core genre traits, I was quickly won over. Hard Boiled is action cinema at its most explosive, but it's nearing its 30th birthday, and it's been a long, long time since I last watched it. I wasn't entirely sure whether it would still hold up, not in the least because I felt similar films from that era have lost some of their shine. Luckily, revisiting this film turned out to be a real delight.
The "heroic bloodshed" niche will forever be John Woo's legacy, but he's actually a much more varied and capable director than most people give him credit for. I really like his early comedies and I appreciate his martial arts work, but when considering the material that truly set him apart from his peers, it's simply impossible to ignore Woo's action cinema. The Killer is probably the biggest landmark in his oeuvre, but when it comes to personal preference, I think I like Hard Boiled just that little better. The action and melodrama seem to be slightly more balanced here.
Heroic bloodshed is a pretty good description of the niche Woo popularized. The body count is substantial, driven by lengthy action scenes that aren't too interested in endless show fighting (which tends to dominate the local martial arts cinema). Bullets fly, grenades explode, people die. In between the action scenes, strong doses of melodrama are injected to make sure the protagonists and their actions come off as heroic as possible. In those moments, the core weakness of Hong Kong cinema shines through, but the action here is so dominant that it hardly matters.
The plot is little more than a skeleton, a simple blend of genre clichés there to support the action. On the one hand, you have the vigilante cop who gets scolded for taking things to far, then there's the mole who is having trouble separating his life of crime with his factual job, and finally there's the ambitious, over-zealous and actively evil Triad boss trying to get higher up in the organization. Throw some drugs and illegal shipments of weapons into the mix, and you have everything you need for some explosive encounters, interspersed with the necessary drama.
It's John Woo's visual flair that makes his action scenes stand out, he certainly didn't hold back there. Very deliberate and extravagant camera work, an excess of showy slo-mo, a flurry of details and chaos when bullets whiz by and scenery explodes, and super tight editing make the action scenes in Hard Boiled some of the most exciting ones I've seen. It's clear that he had a decent budget to work with (at least for Hong Kong standards), but it's Woo's signature style and the flawless execution that turns a pretty basic action film into a veritable showcase of stylized mayhem and destruction.
The soundtrack is Woo's Achilles heel, Hard Boiled is no exception. The music underneath the action scenes sounds extremely generic, but at least it's somewhat fitting. It's mostly just noise that adds to the intensity of the scenes, making sure they don't fall flat. The score during the dramatic scene is more conspicuous, but for all the wrong reasons. It adds a layer of cheese that really works against the drama, playing up the sentimentality and underlining how little these scenes really matter. It doesn't kill the film, but it keeps Hard Boiled from reaching ever bigger heights.
The cast on the other hand is absolute genius. Chow Yun-Fat is a given, especially after his collaboration with Woo in The Killer, but opposite Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, sparks really start to fly. Leung is one of the few Hong Kong actors who manage to excel in comedy and action, as well as in purely dramatic roles. It gets even better when you know Anthony Wong and Phillip Kwok are making the most of the perfect villain roles. And if that's not enough, you can look forward to some cameos of Jun Kunimura and John Woo himself. While this is not a film that primarily relies on its actor, it's really nice having a cast that can pull off bad-ass like no other.
A runtime exceeding the two-hour mark may seem daunting for an action flick, even somewhat problematic, but with a finale that lasts almost 45 minutes, it's actually a perk. The film is structured around three extended action scenes, with two shorter stretches of narrative glue in between. Woo makes sure Hard Boiled doesn't miss its start, won't let it die down in the middle, and finishes things off with a big, loud bang. It's not quite a non-stop barrage of action, but it comes pretty close. If you don't really care for action cinema, needless to say this film won't be for you.
Heroic bloodshed will never be my favored action niche, when push comes to shove I tend to prefer the more acrobatic hand-to-hand combat, but when served with so much gusto and dedication it's hard not to fall in love with it. Hard Boiled is one of the best action flicks out there, touting majestic gun fights and epic body counts, with a prime cast and a talented director keeping everything in check. It's a film for action fans only, but if you love to see bullets fly than this is one of the most badass films out there. The only downside is that it'll make you realize how crappy most other action films are.