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Hard Boiled (Lat Sau San Taam)

dir: John Woo
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For my money, by my reckoning, there has never been a finer gun action film than Hard Boiled. Chow Yun Fat has never been cooler, and John Woo, after making the move to Hollywood, never came close to replicating the majesty, the carnage/artistry, the sheer awesomeness that is this film.

I know, my praise is over the top, completely over the top. Many might watch it and see nothing but a routine actioner, with some pretty dire dialogue. But the great thing about not having to justify any of my worthless opinions to anyone on this planet is that I don’t have to justify any of my worthless opinions to anyone on this or any other planet.

Although, if that was strictly the case, then the very act itself of writing a review of a film would be, by my definition, pointless. All I would arrogantly need to do is bellow “I hated it, and I don’t have to tell you why, Good Night and Good Luck, and in the immortal words of Edward R. Murrow, Go Fuck Yourselves!”

And no-one wants to read that. Except maybe masochists who like being abused by the written word. Kinda like those people who voluntarily read those Dan Brown books that are still pretty big at the moment.

At least people are still reading books, I guess. But this review isn’t about literature and high art. This is about something that happened, at a crucial juncture of time, space and matter, in the early part of the 90s, to change action films forever.

Not just Hong Kong action films. This is the film that decided you could have a body count in the hundreds in a non-war context, and that’s just the opening minutes revolving around a brutal early morning shootout at a teahouse. This film said you could show monstrous triad gangsters ruthlessly shooting legions of innocent civilians just for the hell of it. This film said there was now no limit to how much carnage you could dole out over the course of two hours.

If you can imagine a film that anachronistically combines the violence of the opening of Saving Private Ryan and Die Hard in the one film, and exceeds both of them, then you’re some way along towards understanding what this film’s approach is.

Also, there’s a streak of mawkish sentimentality a mile wide, interspersed by strange musings on the nature of cop justice, friendship and what it is to be a gun-toting hero in this turvy topsy world.

And jazz, lots of jazz. Chow, Sainted Chow himself even pretends to play the clarinet in the opening, as we get some cool licks and an example of what Tequila (Chow’s character) likes to drink when he’s not killing bad guys.

When this film first came out, it was an underground sensation here in Melbourne. This was over a decade before it became as easy as anything to wander into one of the local purveyors of fine imported piracy from the Far East, and pick up something getting some street buzz. You know, like I do now.

No, despite having heard about the film for several months, it wasn’t until I heard about a screening at the Cinematheque (a now defunct theatrette beneath the Treasury Building, at the top end of Collins Street), where Hard Boiled played on a double bill with a strange silent era comedy starring Harold Lloyd. The only thing I remember about that short film is that there was a bizarre scene where the protagonist, trying desperately to get a car started, borrows a syringe from an addict lying on the footpath, and injects its contents into the car, giving it instantly the pep it needs to finish the journey. Strange time, the 1930s.

All I remember about Hard Boiled is everything, no matter that the print looked like it had been stepped on, gouged out, and been beaten, torn, burnt and shot as much as the action it depicted.

It didn’t matter; I was as blown away then as I am now. Recently, after having had it on video for decades and watched it until the video machine itself got sick of playing it and tried to chew it up (I drunkenly won that battle, with a butter knife and a complete disregard for the fact that the machine was still plugged into the power point), I made the transition to a so-called “silvery disk what has pictures and movies on it”, or “DVD” as you earthlings call them, of Hard Boiled, which is not only in a superb, fresh condition, recut perhaps from an original negative, but also has a half hour of interspliced footage I’ve never seen but suspected existed. Even for such a violent gunfest flick, there were scenes you could tell had been hastily edited to please some group of prudes and scolds.

But now it’s all back together again in its pristine glory. Young Chow. Young Tony Leung Chiu Wai (who looks ageless anyway). Young Anthony Wong, who is in every Hong Kong flick ever made. Lots and lots of dead people. Tens of thousands of bullets. Entire teahouses, warehouses and a hospital destroyed just to make this flick.

Pure magic. This was the pinnacle, and all else from thenceforward has only ever been a pale shadow…

Tequila (Chow) is a detective with Hong Kong’s finest on the trail of some triads who have the audacity to import Chinese guns into his town. A tip-off regarding a meet-and-greet of buyers and sellers leads him to the least sensible attempt to arrest some crooks that I’ve ever seen. It degenerates into a bloody slaughter with hundreds of deaths on the crim, cop and civilian sides.

But it’s such a delightfully staged and filmed slaughter. What have now become commonplace scenes of people shooting at each other with a gun in each hand whilst using the furniture and surroundings in superb executioner’s style, are here fresh as daisies and immediate, messy and created without recourse to CGI or camera trickery. This flick achieved a greatness that “inspired” the gun carnage of The Matrix, but it did so with less than 1/20th of the budget.

In reality, having initiated such a senseless police action would result in loss of employment, criminal charges and possible execution by firing squad, which would be a pleasant irony. But this was lawless Hong Kong back before 1997, long before the place reverted to Chinese rule. No, back then you could shoot hundreds of people without even warranting a sternly worded email from your superiors. Ah, those were the days.

In between feeling bad about losing cop buddies and playing cool jazz licks in a club run by John Woo, Tequila is determined to do everything in his power to bring down the evil triad gangster Johnny (Anthony Wong) who, apart from wearing terrible clothing, disdains the idea that there should be any honour amongst thieves or boundaries on his criminal behaviour. He even has the audacity to mock the cops because they have inadequate penises. Okay, so he really mocks them for using guns of a meagre (.38) calibre, but it amounts to the same thing.

Alan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a suave and debonair assassin for Uncle Ho, one of Johnny’s chief rivals, is introduced through a cheesy, saxophone drenched sequence involving fast cars, a library, and a book proving that the bullet really is still mightier than the written word.

It is swiftly revealed to us, once Alan and Tequila’s paths start violently crossing, that perhaps Alan isn’t the triad gangster he appears to be. Oh, don’t get me wrong. He’s still suave at all times, but he’s not necessarily a triad.

In between the scenes of extreme carnage are quieter moments that John Woo hopes add thematic levels and character dynamics to what would otherwise be a calamitously noisy affair. They are, to use the official film school term, mostly bullshit. Tequila has an ex-girlfriend who’s also on the force (Teresa Mo) who does little more than look pissed off with him. She “shines” in a very late scene in the film where a triad ignores the fact that she’s pointing a gun at him, walks up to her, says “Bitch!” in a very unchivalrous manner, and then slaps her, also unchivalrously.

She then shoots him. It ends up (I guess, under the pain of multiple viewings), being unintentionally funny. There are many, many of these highly strange “what the fuck?” moments interspersed throughout the film, which would never have come to light or even have been noticed had the film slipped into the obscurity that claimed the 900 or so other Hong Kong flicks that came out in the same era.

Woo is no competent scriptwriter, dialogue-writer or competent director of anyone other than actors who can direct themselves playing very clear types (macho cops, macho gangsters). The common “themes” of his flicks, like the brotherhood of men, the kinship between cops and crims who live similar, parallel lives, are lazy and hackneyed to the point of being laughable.

But he can direct action scenes. At least he used to be able to back then. Boy howdy could he direct the fuck out of an action scene.

An attack on Uncle Ho’s arsenal of weapons (containing as it does a bizarre amount of guys up on scaffolding platforms and shipping containers using angle-grinders on metal in order to shoot streams of sparks onto the proceedings, despite the fact that there’s absolutely no reason for them to be up there), starts off slow (if you can call Johnny’s henchman Mad Dog killing dozens of rivals with everything from sub-machine guns, to grenades, to killing them with motorbikes and motorbike helmets), and then pauses for some heartfelt dramatics.

The heartfelt dramatics are courtesy of Alan being forced to choose between watching his old boss be cut down by his rival’s bullet, in order to save his men, or to be the one who kills Uncle Ho himself. Despite the hackneyed level of dramatics here, Tony Leung really does carry the scenes remarkably well, being able to convey a world of emotion with just a shift of expression from pain to thuggish self-satisfaction.

When Tequila and Alan inevitably draw down upon each other, in another move which has become an action flick cliché, it is Tequila who pulls the trigger on an empty chamber, and Alan who makes him sweat, before leaving the scene with a mercurial smile on his face. The scene is reversed, minutes later (in our time, the next day in their timeframe), with Tequila unable to hide how emasculated he felt when he was at the mercy of Alan’s bigger, stronger gun. Detect a theme running through the flick?

Tequila presses the barrel of his gun into Alan’s face long enough for it to leave a deep impression in his cheek. Dominance is asserted, at least temporarily. The two men, manly men, now decide to work together to bring down Johnny by tracking down his arsenal, which happens to be located in the basement of a hospital.

Whatever it sounds like the film has accomplished in terms of bloodshed or violence pales into insignificance compared to what happens in this last part of the film, which is just one long action multiple orgasm. It builds slowly at first, and reaches a sustained fever pitch when Alan and Tequila go on an incredible one-take floor by floor massacre of Johnny’s henchmen. In fact, so long and sustained is this bloodshed that you have to wonder how Johnny managed to recruit so many thousands of hired goons just to throw their lives away here.

With this many triads at his disposal, he could have invaded Australia. He had the guns for it, the gumption, and he still had his right hand man Mad Dog, now sporting a bloody eyepatch, to lead the charge as his General.

Instead, Johnny decides to sulk by picking up his bat and ball and going home, by electing to use all the patients in the hospital as readily-murdered hostages, before deciding “fuck it” and blowing the whole place up. How do you fight against such a monster?

You don’t. All you can do in this world, is kill him before he kills too many innocent people, cops, bystanders, and passing buses full of nuns.

To top even that, Tequila is forced to combat even more goons whilst holding onto a baby left behind when the evacuation started. Even after killing a whole bunch of guys, he still needs to find a way to get himself and the tightly clutched baby (I hope it was a prop, but who knows, maybe they used stunt babies; these were lawless times in old Hong Kong) out of the building not before it explodes, but as it’s exploding.

And then there’s the final confrontation with Johnny, where he forces Tequila to slap himself in the face and yell out loud before all his colleagues that he is impotent. Impotent! Jesus, Mary and Buddha on a cross, Johnny, wasn’t he angry enough before? He just killed three hundred thousand of your henchmen with guns, with style, with whatever furniture was available and with the sharp edges of his cocky grin. And now you’ve gone and done it: You made him mad.

Few villains get their comeuppance in as satisfying a manner as Johnny does, replete with that “oh fuck, what have I just done?” look plastered across his stupid mug. And now I think I need a cigarette.

I’m… I’m done, I’m spent. This amazing film has left me dazed, glazed, contused, confused and out of bullets. Well, not too confused. I still possess enough of my faculties to articulate just what a landmark it was. Sure, there’s a lot of cringeworthy dialogue, and hammy moments. And there’s a lot of stuff that is just ludicrous, such as a major character dying from electrocution, being revived, and then picking up his gun and getting back into the fight without so much as a by-your-leave. Or even 30 seconds of quiet time to get his breath back.

But these trivialities are as ants at the feet of the colossus that is Chow Yun Fat. This film has been copied, faxed and poorly scanned. It has been approximated (recently, the cartoonish satire Shoot Em Up came pretty close, obviously there’s the Matrix films, and most recently the pretty trashy Wanted tried something similar) but never matched and it never will be. Even John Woo himself, with bigger budgets and bigger stars has never been able to match what he did here, and, considering his last seven or so movies, he most likely never will.

And that is as it should be. There’s only ever going to be one Elvis. There’s only one Mona Lisa. And there’s only one Hard Boiled.

10 times the bullets that end the threads of evildoers, 10 the guns that never seem to be reloaded, 10 thousand the enemies who fall like sheafs of wheat before the harvester’s scythe, 10 the tears of sorrow that flow from the policeman’s eyes at the thought of buddies lost and drinks spilled, 10 times 10 times 10.

“Give a guy a gun, he thinks he's Superman. Give him two and he thinks he's God.” – Hard Boiled