Threepenny Thursday – Hard Boiled

23 Aug

For a self-professed film lover, there are quite a few supposedly crucial movies I still haven’t seen. The Goonies, Platoon, 8 1/2Driving Miss Daisy, Doctor Zhivago.  Shit, I haven’t even seen Titanic. No, seriously.

It’s usually because I haven’t yet encountered a point of reference for the film, which are most often friends who go “DUDE you gotta see this movie!” It’s becoming increasingly apparent that I am the person fulfilling that role for other people, and the balance between ‘what I recommend to people’ versus ‘what is recommended to me’ has gone way off-kilter. Now I’m an intrepid pioneer, venturing out alone in the wilds of the Internet, having to machete my way through websites, forum threads, and Netflix Recommends lists to unearth the golden idols within. One such expedition recently led me along the untouched path of Hong Kong action cinema, and you can’t even say those words without simultaneously spelling “JOHN WOO” on the wall in uncontrollably spurted love juice.

Hard Boiled is his magnum opus, and an incredible movie in many ways. Incredible is a good word – it means “hard to believe”. And I don’t mean that you have to suspend your disbelief for a lot of this film – although that would be very wise – rather, I’m saying that the shit that you will experience watching it will beggar belief. The action sequences will drop your jaw to the floor, and the dramatic scenes? Well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

The above poster pretty much tells you all you need to know about the movie. Chow Yun-Fat, long before his elegant turn as Li Mu-Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, cut his teeth as the titular tough cop, Inspector “Tequila” Yuen. He likes alcohol, guns, protecting innocent infants, and making sweet love to his clarinet every night in a local dive jazz bar. He’s balanced by an undercover agent played by Tony Leung, whom I loved in the exquisite Jet Li martial arts epic Hero. They team up to take down a greasy Hong Kong mobster who’s hiding an arms cache in…a hospital? Hence the wee babies.

I’m going to take a moment here to explain something. I want you to think of an action movie cliché. Any one. Got one? Okay cool. Was it a standoff (Mexican or otherwise)?

Got those. Was it, I dunno, smuggling a shotgun inside a flower box?

Too easy, mate. What about firing two guns whilst jumping through the air, coupled with excessive use of slow motion?

Oh you know we got that too. Or maybe you were thinking more along character lines – perhaps the jacked-up miniboss henchman, who provides the penultimate fight before the big climax?

I can’t look at this screencap without bursting out laughing. Nice gloves, pal.

Sensing a pattern? John Woo is a household name because he was a pioneer of action cinema, not just in Hong Kong, but around the world. He did it first, and he did it best, and Hard Boiled is a perfectly pure and distilled example of that. Nothing but guns, gangsters, blood, and explosions. Am I the only one with a hard-on here?

The action sequences in Hard Boiled are among the best I’ve ever seen, and this is a movie that came out in 1992. The direction is so tight! The shots are just long enough for us to understand where all the players are situated in the geometry of the scene, but short enough that it’s relentlessly fast-paced. The setpieces vary from warehouse shootouts to teashop showdowns to long takes of hand cams following characters through hallways as they mow down baddies, all of them expertly staged and flawlessly executed. And there are so goddamn many guns in this movie. Every character goes through three different weapons in every fight and has a brand new arsenal for the next round; I honestly haven’t seen this much gun porn since Heat. They all sound great, too, from the pop-pop of police-issue .38s to the BLAOW of Tequila’s shotgun, and every Glock and grenade in between.

Something I absolutely loved: I couldn’t pick out a single CGI shot in this entire movie. It’s nothing but dudes flying through the air, blanks and sparks and fire and explosions and wood splinters and blood-spurting squibs.

No no no, not…ugh, whatever.

It’s indulgent in that late eighties/early nineties way, with many ridiculously amazing setpieces and stunts that exist solely to make you laugh aloud in shock and amazement. There are some really creative stunts, too. I feel it’s utterly necessary to share this particular one with you:

BOOOOOOM! It was so badass, they had to do it twice. I like to think Woo had one remaining non-destroyed motorcycle at the end of a shooting day and just went “You know what? Fuck it. Throw some C4 on that bitch, we’re gonna launch it off a ramp this time.”

I dunno what it is about Uzi-toting gangsters on motorcycles ripping around inside a warehouse that is so awesome. But I don’t need to know, like even a little bit:

Ohh SNAP! Did they really intend for us to absorb that with a straight face? Hahahahahahaaa! Jesus! All I can say is, if I’m not reincarnated as a stuntman who drives dirtbikes off ramps and into dummies and piles of cardboard boxes then FUCK HINDUISM, SERIOUSLY.

So the action sequences are insane, and awesome. But what about the story? There’s gotta be some plot in there; some characters and relationships to prop up the gunfights, right? Yeah…no.

The copy of Hard Boiled that I…ahem… obtained was the English dub. I would have preferred to see the original Chinese cut with Cantonese and English subtitles, but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to experience some hilariously bad 1992-era English dubbing! And OH MY GOD did Hard Boiled ever deliver. I actually created a Youtube account and spent an hour capturing and editing terribly grainy footage on my phone just so I could share these gems with you:

Like what the hell was that delivery on the last line?? I prefer to imagine that the “actors” recorded these lines without ever seeing the film, and in separate buildings on different days. He shouts out “IS THAT ILLEGAL?!” with such force that I think the voiceover guy must have thought Tequila was under the impression his girlfriend was actually breaking the law, and was just itchin’ to deliver a good shotgun therapy session.


Every hard-boiled cop needs at least one scene where he has a shouting match with his superior officer. “You’re a loose cannon,” etc. This one is just… special, in the juicebox-drinking, chest-slapping, pants-down-at-the-urinal sense:

And finally, a quick sequence of lines that are so poorly delivered, they rival some scenes from The Room. Tequila’s girlfriend, who works at the police station, is helping the chief decode communiqués from their undercover agent, who disguises his messages in “do-re-mi” solfège.

I would like to know how they’re all goddamn experts at this syllabic musical structure, but more than that: how is voice acting this terrible even possible? I am more than a hundred percent sure that that last line was in unedited Cantonese. Just…just delightful.


So to sum up: for my first foray into the world of Hong Kong action, I couldn’t have chosen a better jumping-off point. The choreography/action, the sound/music, the performances, and the direction are all totally banging. The script/story was the only element I felt was lacking (because it was cringingly awful) but it was so bad that it circled right back around to become immensely enjoyable. I had a riot watching this movie alone in my room, laughing and shouting at the thoroughly unbelievable shit on the screen. I’m pretty sure I had ovaries before I experienced these action scenes. Pencil in Hard Boiled to the top of your priority list: it’s essential viewing for any action fan, and a radical experience all-round.



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