Lashou shentan

(Hard Boiled, Hong Kong - 1992)

by Matt White

Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Teresa Mo, Philip Kwok Jan-fung, Philip Chan Yan-kin
Genre: Action
Director: John Woo
Screenplay: Barry Wong from a story by John Woo
Cinematography: Wang Wing-heng
Composer: Michael Gibbs & James Wong
Runtime: 128 minutes

If there can be any such thing as "flawed masterpiece", Hard Boiled would be the archetype. It is very satisfying on one level, but on another it can be incredibly frustrating because of the flashes of brilliance that frequent the film fall short in the end. This film has probably the best gunfight set pieces ever to grace a film and it is almost the best cops and gangsters film. The reason I use the world "almost," is due to the fact the film changes course half way through.

The first 80 or so minutes of this film are an intriguing tale of a merciless investigative cop, Tequila (played by Chow Yun-fat), a deep cover cop (Tony Leung in a star cementing role) that nobody knows about and a ruthless young gangster, Johnny Wong (played by Anthony Wong), who is taking over the Hong Kong underworld. Tequila`s bulldog tactics on the side of the law provide an interesting comparison to Johnny`s ruthless tactics against fellow gangsters and snitches. Caught in the middle is Tony who grows more and more isolated and mentally tortured. Tequila eventually finds out Tony`s true identity and they make a pact. It is here where the movie just degenerates as Tony and Tequila go to a hospital to find Johnny`s weapons stash. Johnny takes over the hospital and the movie becomes Die Hard as Tony and Tequila fight their way out. Of course, the last 40 minutes feature a great combination of cinematography and action choreography but it just leaves you feeling empty because the first half of the film showed potential to be so much more. However, given the period and context when the film was made, the decision makes sense.

John Woo was first an assistant to Kung Fu directing legend Chang Cheh then became a mediocre kung fu director in the late 70`s. He followed with a stream of successful comedies in the early 80`s, but in 1986 he struck Hong Kong box-office gold with the release of his first crime film A Better Tomorrow starring a successful TV actor (but struggling screen star) Chow Yun-fat, an unproven pop singer (Leslie Cheung) and a Shaw Brothers veteran (Ti Lung). Produced by Tsui Hark, the film started a whole new genre of ultra-violent crime films in a time when mega-budget ensemble comedies and contemporary "gun-fu," martial arts films ruled the day (Sam Hui`s Aces Go Places series and Jackie Chan`s Police Story immediately come to mind). It made Woo and everyone else involved, the hottest thing in Hong Kong.

Hark and Woo almost had a falling out with the sequel A Better Tomorrow II, when Hark re-cut most of the film to fit his vision, leaving the climatic gun fight, the only Woo trademark, untouched (the movie bordered on parody of its predecessor). In 1989, to try and separate himself from A Better Tomorrow, Woo decided to make an unofficial remake of his favorite film, Jean Pierre Melville`s Le Samourai. Hark hated the idea, especially with Chow Yun-fat dumping the trench coat in favor of a suit to be modeled after Samourai`s star, Alain Delon. The only veto he put on the film though was changing the lead female from a jazz singer in to a pop singer. The film, known as The Killer, did disappointing box office in Hong Kong. However, around the world, (and more importantly for Woo, Hollywood studios) it became the most famous film to come out of Hong Kong since Bruce Lee`s films. Unlikely bedfellows Sam Raimi, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese all praised the film and it became an art house and film festival hit. Woo got offers to come to Hollywood but he could not accept any of them: He had three films under contract for Golden Princess Films in Hong Kong. The final nail in the coffin for Hark and Woo`s relationship came when Hark single handedly sold the remake rights to The Killer (an aborted remake to be done by Walter Hill and starring Richard Gere), arguing that he had sole producer credit, even though he strongly disagreed with the film being made in the first place. Woo didn`t get angry, he just kept making films, this time without any involvement from Hark.

The following film, A Bullet in the Head (ironically about betrayal among best friends) was a big hit in Hong Kong and is regarded by critics to be Woo`s best film. He then returned to his comedy roots to make the caper film, Once A Thief starring his veteran actors of Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung. He only had one more film left on his contract with Golden Princess before he could pursue Hollywood efforts. Hard Boiled would be that film and it almost reads like a resume. The Woo trademarks of bullet ballet, mixed with blood and melodrama almost have a textbook quality about them. It is flashier, more beautiful and over the top than anything he has ever shot but unfortunately it is emotionally emptier than his previous pinnacles.

This is probably the most violent film ever made and the best representation of the type of raw violence that is rarely equaled in western films. It is not blood and gore (though, this film has lots) I`m talking about but rather the almost total disregard in this film for human life. Innocent bystanders are killed at an alarming rate caught in the middle of the gunfights between the bad guys and good guys. In the climatic scene alone, hospital patients are sprayed with bullets in eye opening numbers. Due to the comic book violence, it almost has a numbing effect. Why, is there so much carnage?

My older brother once had a professor mention this film in a class who said the violence was inspired by Korean labor riots. One article in a scholarly film magazine, stated it had to do with class struggle, but that is interpreting the film through a strict Marxist framework, which I do not think this movie is coming from. The film is actually touching upon something bigger than labor problems and class struggle. It is referencing the epidemic of mass urban violence that has besieged East Asia, particularly China, in the past 150 years. Starting with the Taiping rebellion of the 1850`s to the Tienanmen Square incident in 1989, mass urban violence has plagued East Asia, particularly China and its satellites of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It is usually political in nature and all sides have taken part in the violence. The Taiping rebellion was an all out war, so the ruling Manchu`s had no choice but to quell the rebellion. The same could be said for the Boxer rebellion, but this time the targets were foreigners, who once again, had no choice but to defend themselves. After the 1912 founding of the Republic of China, violence became a means to put down opposing voices. The period of 1916-1928, when China was divided among warlords, ended in a violent unification when combined Republican and Communist forces destroyed anyone in their way. Then came the purging of communists in the 30`s resulting in mass urban executions. Let`s not forget the Communists did their own purging after they secured the mainland, resulting in millions dead. After World War II, Taiwan experienced the 2/21 uprising, when angry Taiwanese lashed out against their new Chinese rulers, leading to a week of brutal retaliation by the Chinese forces. Taiwan was also party to riots in Kaohsiung (biggest city in the south) in 1979, once again due to Taiwanese independence protests. The British colony of Hong Kong could not escape the plague either and in 1956 communist riots broke out around the crown colony. The city was also host to gangland violence, sometimes very brutal.

I think Hard Boiled and to a certain extent, all of Woo`s crime films, come from this history. Conflict is always leading to violence. This happens all over the world, but the Chinese version always results in tons of innocent bystanders getting caught in the middle. From the opening gunfight to the climax at the hospital, people who are neither cop nor gangster get mowed down. Even more chilling is Woo doesn`t even seem to blink while doing it. Like Kubrick, he forces us to watch it and judge for ourselves. The only scene where there seems to be any comment on this is when Philip Kwok`s Mad Dog and Tony have their climatic duel. Right before they start shooting, they wave off the innocents between them. Actually Mad Dog gets the better of Tony but is killed by his boss because he refuses to shoot innocents that are in the way. Maybe Woo was showing all this killing to build up to this moment, to really get the point across about Johnny`s ruthlessness, but by this point in the film, the point has clearly been made.

Throughout all the death and destruction is Woo`s trademark tale of redemption. Unlike counterparts Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, who bring a Buddhist cynicism to their films, Woo, a Christian, brings a mixture of brotherly Confucianism but also the moral absolutes and redemption of Christianity. The message of redemption is very present in his other films like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, but here it is kind of muted (maybe because this is not a personal film?). But what is at play is Woo`s exploration of the thin line between good and evil. I disagree with those who say his movies are "gray areas," and Woo himself has outright said his movies are about good and evil. Most of the time there is always one character who is stuck in the middle, trying to make a transition from good to evil. In this film, it is more complicated: There is the character of Tony, a young idealistic cop, who is getting caught up more and more in the underworld and is becoming mentally tortured because he can not see if there is anything good being done. Where this film disappoints is the crisis is resolved too easily: Him and Tequila join forces and shoot it out with the gangsters. It is a great shoot out, don`t get me wrong, but the story arc had a lot more potential than where it went.

However, Woo letting his game slip is better than some doing their best. In 2002, Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau (The Stormriders and The Young and Dangerous series), starring Hong Kong megastars Leung and Andy Lau, created a surge in Hong Kong that had not been present since the golden period ended in 1995. It is pretty much the same story as Hard Boiled (director Lau even admitted he wanted to make a new, "Hard Boiled,") with Leung pretty much playing the same role from 10 years before (but this time his youthful idealism was replaced with hardened old age cynicism), except this movie tried to work as a drama, with hardly any violence. The result is Andrew Lau`s best film (that`s not saying much), a good performance by Andy Lau and a typical great performance by Leung. The film beat out Zhang Yimou`s Hero as best feature film in the Hong Kong film awards. Problem is, the movie just feels like another flashy Hong Kong picture. Even though Hard Boiled was not as personal as say Bullet in the Head, Woo`s cinematic energy and uniqueness could still be felt. Infernal Affairs is carried by the power of its actors, not its director.

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That is not to say acting is not important in Woo`s films. Hard Boiled has great performances from its cast. There is Chow Yun-fat, basically playing a Chinese version of Dirty Harry. Chow is usually known for being slick, cool and funny but here is all tough guy with touches of humor. He does not even have to say much in this movie because the way Woo films his stare and strut is just incredible. Anthony Wong pretty much became visible with this film. He does not like this film, or Woo (he is one of the few formally trained actors in Hong Kong cinema and claims Woo only listens to Chow Yun-fat for acting input) but he still puts on a great performance. The moment he is on screen, it is obvious who the villain is. However, Tony Leung and Philip Kwok overshadow Chow and Wong.

As mentioned before, Leung`s performance of Tony is great. His performance of a conscience stricken deep cover cop is what really helps raise the film above others in the same genre. The best scene is when he betrays the gangster he`s been working for by shooting him and then walking, facing the camera, with the biggest look of torture in his eyes. Philip Kwok, Johnny`s lead henchman Mad Dog, rarely says anything but his presence is enough. A former Shaw Brothers regular who then moved in to action films, the grace at which he fires his gun is a work of beauty. He is one of the most memorable henchmen in cinema history.

Kwok deserves more credit because he also worked behind the camera as Woo`s action choreographer. Usually, Woo worked with kung fu choreographer Chin Siu-tung but for some reason he used Kwok for this film, but what a blessing in disguise. Combined with the cinematography of art film cinematographer Wang Wing-heng, Kwok realizes some of the most visual compelling action scenes ever. In films like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, the camera was rather static but in this film the camera moves with the action. The camera also moves with Kwok, a former Beijing Opera performer, who uses kung fu mannerisms in the way he wields his weaponry. The action in this film is a work of art, more than any other of Woo`s films.

One other thing that needs to be mentioned is the score. Most Hong Kong movies are known for their pathetic scores that are less than memorable, but Michael Gibbs and James Wong provide a pulsating beat that never lets up (similar to Brad Fiedel`s score in the first Terminator) and Lethal Weapon derivative saxophones that seem fitting whenever Leung is on camera.

If this movie was a resume for Hollywood then John Woo got the job. He went on to direct Hard Target, starting an initiation right for Hong Kong directors beginning their Hollywood careers: Making a vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damme. Unlike his contemporaries he actually found success with movies like Broken Arrow and Face/Off, and is the only director from Hong Kong to actually stay in Hollywood. Whether that is a bad or a good thing still remains to be seen. Unfortunately, his career seems to be following the path of Wolfgang Petersen rather than Paul Verhoeven. His Hollywood resume has not really added to his body of work, nor does it seem he has grown as a filmmaker.

As mentioned in my review of Full Contact, this movie is pretty much the end of the ultra violence genre in Hong Kong cinema that Woo started with A Better Tomorrow, and it is a great farewell. Ringo Lam would reinvent it with Full Contact and Wong Jing would parody it with God of Gamblers Return. While A Better Tomorrow is the favorite of most Chinese people and Bullet In the Head the favorite of critics, this film is the favorite of fanboys for obvious reasons: It brings the action. I don`t like saying John Woo is an, "action director," because his films always seem to rise above of that. His only real "action" film to me is Hard Target. Along with directors such as Dario Argento, Sergio Leone and Brian DePalma, Woo helped inspire people like Quentin Tarantino who saw an auteur working within a genre framework. Guys like Woo help bring in the snobby art house crowds and the genre loving fanboys, and Hard Boiled is usually where a lot of people on the fanboy spectrum tend to start.



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