The Godfather of gun fu, John Woo, delivered his swansong Hong Kong action-thriller “Hard Boiled” before making the move to Hollywood in 1992.
To this day, “Hard Boiled” remains the blueprint for fusing kung fu with the classic shootout, cementing John Woo as the trailblazer of the gun fu, heroic bloodshed genre…
Chow Yun-Fat stars as Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen, a driven police detective hellbent on taking down the Triads and avenging his partner Benny Mak.
Already a star in Hong Kong, Chow Yun-Fat also starred in John Woo’s “The Killer” as ‘Ah Jong’ and went on to star in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as Master Li Mu Bai.
Tony Chiu-Wai Leung co-stars as ‘Alan’, an undercover cop who has infiltrated the Triads posing as an assassin. Tony started his acting career in “Game of Death” and went on to star in the classic “Infernal Affairs”.
Theresa Mo plays ‘Teresa Chang’, a love interest who adds humour to her romantic turmoil with Inspector Tequila. With her experience in dramas and romances, Teresa Mo provides “Hard Boiled” with hilarious respite to the fast-paced shootouts that the film is best known for.
Philip Chan plays ‘Superintendent Pang’, the police station boss who must act as the go-between for Tequila and Alan and carefully balance neither cop being killed while maintaining Alan’s undercover status. You might also recognise Philip Chan from his role as Inspector Y.K. Chen in Jackie Chan’s “Supercop“.
Finally, Anthony Chau-Sang Wong plays the villain ‘Johnny Wong’ who intends on toppling the Triads and becoming the biggest gunrunning crime syndicate in Hong Kong.
In a Hong Kong teahouse, Tequila and Benny Mak seek to hijack a gun smugglers’ ring. However, a rival gang ambushes the deal in a messy shootout, killing Benny in the carnage.
Tequila shoots Benny’s killer in revenge but gets ordered off the case by Superintendent Pang who had wanted to catch the criminal for a long time.
Undercover cop Alan betrays Triad boss Uncle Hoi, and joins forces with Johnny Wang, a new crime syndicate boss looking to take over the gun smuggling trade.
Alan kills Uncle Hoi in a raid on his warehouse but spares Tequila who has infiltrated the ambush from a tip-off.
When Alan and Tequila realize they’re both on the same side, they team up to take down Johnny Wang’s operation.
They track the gang to the basement of a hospital where they finally go up against Wang and his team of morally bankrupt mercenaries.
“Hard Boiled” would be easy to describe as non-stop action because for the most part…it is. However, part of its mastery is in its pacing.
The plot ebbs and flows between mass shootouts with flashy pyrotechnics and intimate, clever scenes laced with humour.
John Woo gives you a few moments to appreciate the developing partnership between Alan and Tequila before plunging you back into a crazed sequence of gunfighting.
Even within these spectacular gun fu action sequences, Woo pays special attention to slowing down the action before jump starting again into more bloodshed.
In his editing and cinematography, we see slow motion shots that should typically look out of place as they don’t capture action that needs to be slowed down.
What John Woo does instead is utilize slow motion shots and freeze frames to build tension before his huge gun fu eruptions.
Check out the opening teahouse massacre scene below and feel yourself being placed on tenterhooks by its pacing…
Gun Fu Defined…
This film is probably the pinnacle of gun fu action films, at least in Hong Kong action cinema. Without “Hard Boiled”, Hollywood doesn’t look the way it does today.
If any film is to be dominated by intense, lengthy shootouts, the action must tell the story that dialogue normally would. It just so happens that John Woo is a master of exactly this.
The action is of course breath-taking, but John Woo manages to inject his spectacles with real emotion and meaning – something that Hollywood has struggled to replicate, barring titles such as “John Wick” (2014), and “The Raid” (2011).
Too often, we see action scenes shot with shaky cam and cuts so frequent that we can’t follow the action at all. Due to Woo understanding the importance of his action, he allows takes to last just long enough that we can follow along.
His movement of the camera along with wide framing allows him to fit the maximum amount into each take and allow his actors to develop on screen rather than quickly cutting away.
The best example of this (and it could just be John Woo showing off here) is the long take during the hospital scene. Tequila and Alan clear two floors of gangsters in a single take that lasts 2 minutes, 43 seconds! Gun fu action does the talking instead of heavy editing.
A Textbook Undercover-Cop Movie
As if defining a genre and delivering some of the most iconic moments in Hong Kong action cinema history wasn’t enough, John Woo also simply made a fantastic, undercover cop movie.
It has everything you’d expect from a classic undercover cop movie: twists and turns, betrayal, deceit, moral dilemmas…the list goes on.
Tequila and Alan as dual protagonists are amazing too. To return to western action film comparisons, we are used to empty, one-dimensional heroes that pack little intellectual punch.
What the two-cop duo provide us in “Hard Boiled” is the opposite: two highly intelligent, resourceful heroes who adapt to their environments and outwit their adversaries as much as outgun them.
In the same vein as an early version of Jason Bourne or a John Wick, the characters are designed in a satisfying way that forces you to engage with them, not just watch them passively.
“Hard Boiled” is a success on many fronts. The fact that its hi-octane gun fu action is only part of why this film is brilliant, is itself testament to John Woo.
Action-wise, it’s almost unparalleled with a cache of gunfights, explosions, and daring stunts. It walks the tightrope between believable and fantasy, without giving either away.
Its plot and characters make it a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster of violence, betrayal, and heroism. Chow Yun-Fat (Tequila) and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Alan) put on fantastic performances that cover close-up facial acting, to extensive action sequences.
After watching “Hard Boiled”, it’s easy to see why John Woo is regarded as the Godfather of gun fu and why Hollywood wanted him so badly.
- “Everything goes in and out of style, except war.” – Johnny Wong
- “I hate in-house funerals. I write all the music each time a cop dies and I have to play a tune for him. I really don’t want to do that for you.” – Tequila (to Alan)
- “You saved the day there, you little p***pot. Thanks a lot.” – Tequila (to the baby)
- There are 307 corpses in “Hard Boiled”.
- Characters fire more bullets than their guns would hold – John Woo actually does this on purpose as it would slow down the action otherwise.
- The crew only had one chance to record the continuous take in the hospital scene due to filming schedules.
- Many of the scenes were improvised due to the script not being finished as shooting started. In the teahouse scene, Chow Yun-Fat suggested he be covered in flour at the climax of the scene.
- Johnny Wang wears a different coloured jacket in every scene that he appears in.