Everyone Wants a Gun Like the Killer: Hard Boiled (1992)

A glass, liquor and ginger ale sloppily poured, and a man slams the glass on the counter making the drink foam. He’s a clarinet player, and his music is the good time jazz tinged with sentiment. As his song ends, we’re introduced to a tea house. People are arriving with their birdcages, the man is Yun-Fat Chow, the director is John Woo, and a gunfight is about to erupt.

The first of four main shootouts, the beginnings of a body count that will reach 307, we‘re just getting started. Woo filmed this scene overnight with the use of hundreds of blank rounds imported into Hong Kong just for the film. Residents of the neighborhood registered complained about the gunshots, but thankfully the police were aware of Woo’s filming and stayed away. The teahouse scene was also filmed more than a month before the rest of the film. After putting it to bed, Woo decided that the script, specifically Tony Leung’s part, needed to be changed and brought in Barry Wong to do rewrites.

The movie follows the path of Chow’s Tequila, a cop from the Dirty Harry school of shoot now, say pithy one liners later. In the opening teahouse shootout, his partner is gunned down. So Tequila, being the loose cannon that he is, vows to stop the arms dealers who shot his buddy, and he’s not going to stop for anything. Unfortunately, Tequila’s investigation jeopardizes the safety of Alan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his undercover operation. Alan is deep in the heart of Johnny Wong’s organization, and while at first he and Tequila are at odds, they eventually come to an understanding and take the triads down.

The tale that Hard Boiled spins in not the most original in the book, but it’s told with the kind of grace that makes the base of the story extremely believable. That’s a good thing too because when the action starts rolling then veracity gets tossed out the window. Bullets are at endless supply and get fired with style over accuracy. Heroes and villains alike take tons of punishment in the world and still get back on their feet to fire more rounds. Then there’s the bullet time. Sure, Woo had tread on this ground before, but the slow motion shots work. He piled on as many camera moves as he could come up with, and came up with indelible images like Chow sliding down a banister with two guns blazing.

The second sequence is the warehouse, or as I prefer to call it (Cue Dramatic music.) The Warehouse of Betrayal. So to get into Johnny Wong’s good graces, Alan has no choice but to shoot the kindly old gangster Mr. Hoi, and it’s a shame to see Mr. Hoi get his. Played by Hoi-Shan Kwan, the kindly old gangster seems more kindly old grandfather than career criminal. A veteran of 73 films and a member of the Cantonese Opera since he was 11, Kwan brings all that skill to the table and creates a character that you barely know, but care about instantly. I know this may seem like I’m rambling, but when Kawn’s Mr. Hoi accepts his death at the beginning of the scene, it starts the actions of the heels of a mythical kind of act. So when you get motorcycles start crashing around and Yun-Phat Chow comes repelling through the roof while tossing smoke grenades, you’re ready for it. The fight ends on a Woo trademark, when Tequila and Alan meet in the smoke of battle and Tequila finds he is out of bullets. I love how shocked he looks, and I can’t say that I blame him. It has to be the only gun in the film to ever run out of bullets.

Wisely, on the heels of all this action, Woo takes it down a notch for a while, and it makes the final act of the film all the more dramatic and both literally and figuratively explosive. Woo takes this moment to get Alan and Tequila on the same page, and a small conflict with the remaining member’s of Mr. Hoi’s gang finally gives the duo some time to team up to gun some baddies down. It comes nowhere near the first two action sequences, but it doesn’t need to. It keeps up the pace of the film while bringing everything down for a few moments, and with a 30 minute long sequence set for the films dramatic end, another over the top fight would have left the ending with less room to grow.

While the teahouse will remain my favorite scene in the film, the showdown in the hospital contains some of the most impressive action footage in movie history. Seeing as it’s the ending scenes in the film, I will refrain from divulging any of the narrative, but I do want to take a moment to talk about the action itself. It kicks off in earnest with the nearly three minute long shot of Chow and Tony dispatching guys left and right. This sequence was shot with one hand held camera, and it follows the men from floor to floor. It steadily builds from there with Woo’s flourishes turned up to 11. Both men get their great moments, and you can’t wait to see them get to the thugs threatening babies and sick people. Meanwhile, Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) proves himself to be one sick bastard while his unstoppable, eyepatched henchman Mad Dog (stuntman Phillip Kwok), well, turns out he’s got morals. Who knew?

When taken literally from the Chinese title, the title to the film translates to “Hot Handed God of Cops”. I think this sums everything up quite nicely, but there’s another God of Cops in this flick that I want to mention. As I’ve seen this film numerous times, I often wondered what was up with the statue in the police station you see several times. Well, it turns out that’s General Kwan, a guardian deity who personifies bravery, leadership, protection, and triumph. Pretty much reflecting all the themes that Hard Boiled hits on. If I was going to make a list of my favorite action films, I would be hard pressed not to put this flick in the top spot. Hard Boiled, would be last Woo film made in Hong Kong for sixteen years. Hollywood ensnared him and he ended up working with the likes of Travolta, Nic Cage, Tom Cruise, and Ben Affleck. None of his work in the States has ever measured up to the films he made in the early nineties, and none of those actors ever fit Woo’s style so well as Chow. So even if Hard Boiled was the end of an era, it was a hell of a way to go out.

Bugg Rating


  1. I recall first seeing this in college, when the only way you could get it was on a P&S VHS tape that was the dubbed version. We watched it on a friend's 13 inch TV set. Even given all that, the film flat-out blew us away.

    Great review, as usual!

  2. This was the first Hong Kong action film I ever saw - I was hard-pressed to find much that could live up to it at the time.
    Its mix of insanity and male bonding is just perfect.

  3. Glad you fellows enjoyed the review. It's been a while since I got to see this many Woo flicks and I'm having fun with it.

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