Hard Boiled: Ultimate Edition
July 31, 2007
In retrospect, John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) can be seen as his audition reel for Hollywood. And what a helluva audition reel it was – a masterfully orchestrated magnum opus of mayhem. After its release, he moved to the United States and started over (directing a Jean Claude-Van Damme film no less – ouch!). Woo’s film took the gangster melodrama, that he started with A Better Tomorrow (1986), to the next level. In doing so, he created what is arguably the greatest action film ever made.
We are introduced to a city mired in crime and corruption – one that is at the mercy of the Triads, gun smuggling gangsters with very little regard for human life as evident from the bloody shoot-out in a teahouse that kicks off the film. We are also introduced to a police officer named Tequila (Yun-Fat), a one man army with two guns in his hands; able to gun down bad guys while sliding down a banister (which has since become one of the iconic images from the movie). However, when the gangsters kill his partner, Tequila makes it his life’s goal to take them all down, the law be damned. He eventually crosses paths with Tony (Leung), an undercover cop working deep within the Triads as an efficient killer. So deep, in fact, that he’s beginning to lose his original identity. Once Tequila discovers Tony’s true identity, they team-up for a show-stopping finale that can only be described as a bullet-ridden blow-out of epic proportions.
Hard Boiled is structured around three major action set pieces: the teahouse shoot-out that introduces Tequila, a warehouse gun battle where the cop meets his undercover counterpart, and the hospital showdown where the two men team-up to take down the bad guys. Each sequence is more ambitious than the one that came before and this culminates in the hospital battle that includes an impressive three-minute action sequence without any edits – virtually unheard of in an action film, especially one with as much mayhem as this one.
Woo plays with action film conventions by imparting intentionally sappy, sentimental moments like Tequila rescuing a room full of babies from gangsters and then gives it a mischievous twist by having one baby pee on the fire that started on the cop’s leg after he outran an explosion with the small child.
While Woo purists cite The Killer (1989) as his finest achievement, Hard Boiled tops it in terms of kinetic action and choreography. While the previous film may deal with weightier themes, the latter film has a stronger foil to interact with Chow Yun-Fat. The chemistry between him and Tony Leung is excellent. Their characters start off as antagonists but over the course of the film they become allies, developing the kind of deep, meaningful bond that a lot of characters in Woo films share with one another. Tequila’s girlfriend (Mo) almost seems like an afterthought. After all, how can she compete with what Tequila and Tony go through together over the course of the film?
Hard Boiled was Woo’s last Hong Kong film and this caused some critics to speculate that the film reflected his conflict between staying in a country he loved but that was facing an uncertain future, and leaving it for a prosperous new beginning. This metaphor was said to be expressed symbolically in the besieged hospital at the film’s finale. It represented Woo’s state of mind at the time: does he stay in a place that will potentially kill him, or escape and live but at a cost. The cost was the many restrictions that the Hollywood studios imposed on his first two American films, Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996). It wasn’t until Face/Off (1997) that he was able to finally cut loose stylistically but it still felt like highlights from his Hong Kong output. This makes fans nostalgic for his older films and is why Hard Boiled has stood the test of time. It is still superior to any action film that has been made since.
For those of you lucky enough to own the Criterion Collection edition of this movie, you might want to hold onto your copy as none of the extras from that edition are included on this one. That being said, the video and audio on this version easily surpass any previous incarnations making this edition a must-have for fans of the movie.
The first disc features an audio commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. He shows off his impressive knowledge of HK geography by pointing out which locations in the film don’t exist anymore and their significance in the country’s culture. He also points out several of the supporting cast members and briefly talks about their careers before and after Hard Boiled. Logan also dishes out interesting factoids, like the teahouse in the opening sequence was going to be demolished and this happened right after they filmed the last scene in the place! As with other commentary tracks that he has done his encyclopedic knowledge about the film and HK cinema in general is quite impressive, making for an informative track.
Disc two starts off with “A Baptism of Fire: A Featurette with Iconic Director John Woo.” He was a big fan of Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968) and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry (1971) and with Hard Boiled; he wanted to create his own Dirty Harry. Woo wanted to make Chow Yun-Fat like Eastwood’s iconic character but with the Asian actor’s warm charisma. The director tells some decent filming anecdotes and speaks admiringly of Tony Leung and his Method style of acting.
“Partner in Crime: An Interview with Producer Terence Chang.” He talks about how he met Woo in the late 1970s but that they didn’t start working together until ten years later. He says that Woo was influenced by French gangster films from the 1960s and ‘70s. Chang also talks about the genesis of the film which was originally a psycho who kills baby (?!). Fortunately, after they filmed the teahouse shoot-out, Chang convinced him to discard this idea.
“Art Imitates Life: An Interview with co-star Philip Chan,” the actor who played Tequila’s boss in the film. He was real policeman before getting into film and brought that authenticity to his role. He actually ran a team of undercover cops and speaks admiringly of working with Woo.
“Mad Dog Bites Again: An Interview with Leading Villain Kwok Choi.” He talks about working with Woo on the film. Originally, he was hired to only design the action sequences but Chow Yun-Fat recommended him to play the villain’s right-hand man.
“Hard Boiled Location Guide”: takes us on a fun, fascinating tour of many of the locations from the movie. Some places, like the teahouse (which is now a mall), don’t exist anymore and a little historical background is given to some of the places.
Also included are two trailers, the U.S. and Hong Kong versions.
Finally, there is “Stranglehold Video Game Mini-Making Of.” This is the John Woo-approved sequel to Hard Boiled that allows you to play Tequila. This extra shows how deeply involved he was in the game’s production with Chow Yun-Fat returning to provide the voice for his character!