Hard Boiled

(John Woo, Hong Kong, 1992)


“Woo, the new boy in Hollywood, has a kind of genius”. These wise words from Stephanie Bunbury were coined upon the release of Hard Target (1993), the first American film from John Woo, whose dazzling career in Hong Kong preceded him.


Yet recognition has not come quickly to Woo within mainstream English-speaking cultures. In Australia, few local critics even mentioned his previous film Hard Boiled when it briefly surfaced in theatres, despite the fact that it easily rivalled contemporaneous masterworks like Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991).


Hard Boiled is action cinema at its finest and most imaginative. The setting is Hong Kong 1997, where the social fabric of law and order is unravelling fast. As always in Woo’s films (such as The Killer, 1989) the plot centres on men and their peculiarly terse expressions of mutual affection. Tequila, played by the incomparably charismatic Chow Yun-Fat, is a rebel cop trying to bust a gang of gun smugglers. Eventually, he finds an undercover ally in Tony (Tony Leung).


The scenes of masculine camaraderie and oneupmanship, as well as the touches of comedy and romance, are handled effectively enough. But it is the action that really matters and Woo piles it on, offering stirring set-pieces of murder and destruction that become more and more spectacular. No one else in the world can stage, shoot and edit such scenes with anything like Woo’s panache.


Hard Boiled ends up in a hospital for an uninterrupted thirty minutes of mayhem – a location that allows Woo to mix up life and death, the banal and the apocalyptic, the familiar and the frightening. The crowning touch of this magisterial sequence – a surprise described in my contribution to the 1998 collective text “Woo’s Words” – is for me one of the most sublime moments in the entire history of cinema.


If there’s any justice in popular culture (and I sometimes doubt whether there is), mainstream consumers should give Woo the reward he deserves for his special kind of genius.

MORE Woo: Broken Arrow, Windtalkers, Paycheck, Face/Off

© Adrian Martin February 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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