Action Junkie: Hard Boiled
John Woo’s 1992 Hong Kong film Hard Boiled is to action films what Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West was to westerns. Leone’s epic was itself an ode to the western genre, from its plot to its locations to its camera placements. It constantly relies on or refers to previous films, congealing in a hodge-podge way into something uniquely its own. Comparing a film, then, on the same level as Once Upon a Time…, Woo’s Hard Boiled is fitting, as it draws on previous tough guy action movies for most of its inspiration. This, however, is not the limit of Hard Boiled‘s merits. If we are to examine the film’s production alongside the plot, where sometimes the first directly affected the development of the latter, then I believe we will see that Mr. Woo has effectively created an action film that is more than the sum of its superficial parts.
The story follows hard boiled Hong Kong detective Tequila, as he investigates a gun-running operation that’s fueling the city’s rise in violent crimes. Along the way, he discovers that there are undercover officers secretly at work in the Triads—Chinese gangs—and soon finds himself at odds over a partnership with an undercover agent named Alan, who’s in way too deep. (Note on the character name of Alan: according to some online resources, including IMDb, this character’s name is Tony, but when watching the film, in all the American releases, he is only ever referred to as Alan. This author has no idea as to why the discrepancy exists, and welcomes the answer if anyone knows it.)
The movie opens on a shot of tequila being poured into a glass along with soda water. A napkin covers the top and a hand raises the glass up, slamming it back down to a fizzling carbonated conclusion. The camera pulls back to reveal the main character, Tequila—played by Chow Yun Fat—shooting the beverage down his throat. This is, as Woo himself explains, the manly way for men to drink tequila in Hong Kong. By opening on such an image, Woo works to establish two things at once: a parallel and a reference to the main character’s name. Tequila drinks tequila; perhaps that’s why he’s named as such? We are never told if this is a nickname or a given one. On top of that, the image establishes this film’s reference to the inspiration for the character’s name as coming from the Sam Peckinpah masterpiece The Wild Bunch, as just before the climatic and fateful end of that movie, William Holden drinks a bottle of tequila.
From the jazz bar where Tequila is playing a saxophone alongside his police partner on drums, the movie and characters transition to one of the most spectacular shootouts to ever open a film. Here, in a traditional Chinese teahouse, Tequila and several other officers have tracked down and are staking out a deal to buy smuggled guns. When the police go to make their move for the evidence, the whole place erupts into gunfire, sparks, and explosions. In a film with, to my knowledge, one of the most blatant “disregard for human life” attitudes, pedestrians by the dozens are fodder for the resulting carnage. I imagine busloads of extras being shuttled in shifts to accommodate the demand for bodies. Not only is the scene violent, and riddled with an exuberant body count, but it also boasts some of the most majestic displays of acrobatic gunplay. Ironically, John Woo is the director, and these are the scenes that have inspired so many American action films since, namely The Matrix Trilogy.
This action-packed opening spectacle was the first thing to be filmed, even before there was a script or a story. Mr. Woo knew he wanted to do a film about a character that was a cross between his two favorite American icons, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, and that they needed a scenario to occupy a teahouse. This particular teahouse, a very old landmark, was being torn down, and Woo wanted to immortalize it before it was gone. He even went so far as to pay homage to its long forgotten tradition of the teahouse patrons bringing birds in cages to dine with them. Essentially, this scene was developed to establish the character of Tequila and the world he resides in. At this early phase of production, an idea that would eventually be tossed out was kicking around—that of the film’s lead,opposite Chow Yun Fat, which was cast with actor Tony Leung, as Alan. Alan was originally going to be a serial killer going around Hong Kong poisoning baby food. Not a very popular idea with some of the filmmakers, it didn’t last long past the filming at the teahouse. The final result of this opening extravaganza is a thematic setup for the film’s plot to come, as at the shootout’s end we discover one of the bad guys Tequila killed was an undercover cop. Also, the scene’s result carries a consequence that is in turn a trope of the action film genre: the death of the main character’s partner, or best friend.