Action Junkie: Hard Boiled

These two failures place Tequila in a less respected position. He has fallen from grace of super-cop and now stands apart from his peers and the institution he belongs to. This is symbolically represented in scenes at the police station; Tequila is dressed differently than his co-workers, they typically remain stationary as he moves about the office, and while they maintain respect, he finds himself at the butt of their jokes. The flipside of this coin is Alan, an undercover cop posing as a mob enforcer. When we meet him, he’s working for crime boss Mr. Hoi, but is secretly making moves with a rival leader, Johnny Wong. Eventually, Alan is put in the situation where he has to choose sides. When he picks Johnny and has to betray Mr. Hoi, he’s not just a cop who’s committing murder and breaking the law for the greater good of the job—something we’ve already seen him do upon his introduction—he’s also breaking the law of the institution he’s been pretending to be an agent of. Realizing he’s crossed a new line, Alan decides to fully embrace his decision by eliminating everyone in Mr. Hoi’s personal employ himself. This further fall from grace is accentuated by the film’s second action set piece.

Johnny Wong’s physical takeover of Mr. Hoi’s empire is the seizing of Mr. Hoi’s warehouse at the docks, where guns are shipped in from overseas. The warehouse, with its open space, is the perfect setting for no-holds-barred action sequence. In Woo’s previous film, A Bullet in the Head, he used the open space of the docks at a shipping/cargo terminal to stage a joust between two cars, using guns in place of lances. Here, the inside of the warehouse acts as a playground for the Cirque du Soleil of maximum carnage, as vehicles explode crashing into each other, squibs are more frequent than lights on a Christmas tree, and bodies careen through the air, bullets perforating them in the process, in several different directions at once. In the middle of this beautifully orchestrated chaos, three men become the center focus of attention: Tequila, whose attempt to bring the bad guys to justice mirrors the “one man against an army” archetype of the Schwarzenegger and Stallone films of the 80’s and 90’s; Alan, who’s caught between his role as a gangster and a police officer, which is physically reminded to him by the cog in the wheel that is Tequila—his philosophic conundrum is clearly inspired by the characters of French New-Wave. And then there’s the wild card whose name is Mad Dog. Mad Dog is played by Philip Kwok ,who is John Woo’s Action Coordinator. As they were setting up the scene in the warehouse ,Woo, who had been toying with the character idea previously, decided to use Kwok as the film’s heavy, fearing Johnny Wong did not have the physical presence to appear menacing enough to audiences. Kwok, with his stoic demeanor and physical acclamation to stunts, made for the perfect silent villain to be Johnny’s right-hand man, albeit not a villain without a code of honor, which he fully displays in the climaxing sequences at the film’s end. Mad Dog is a nod to the more ambiguous characters of the early action flicks of the 60’s and 70’s.

The warehouse sequence, like the teahouse sequence that preceded it, demonstrates John Woo’s ability as a director to stage and capture literally some of the best action in film. Taking the aesthetics of the period-piece kung-fu films that started his career, Woo first walks, or, as he states, dances around the set, choreographing the action as he would play it out himself, if he were the character/s in the moment. The resulting moves are much like that of the beautiful sparring of kung-fu, with guns and bullets replacing arms and legs, swords, and other melee weapons. The cinematography by Wing-Hung Wong is steady, even when handheld framing sometimes has both the gunman and the victim in the same shot. Close-ups during the frenzy are often cut to match the motion: a person fires a gun, or throws a grenade, and then we cut to the ensuing damage. Sometimes the cuts are made to exaggerate the motion, placing the camera in extreme positions for the shots of resulting violence, or showing us the same destruction from several angles. These shots are made to sensationalize the spectacle—this is a roller-coaster ride, after all—and the camera, in part, is the car we are riding in. But where this movie sets itself apart from the myriad of American imitators that followed it, is in how the camera shots and the cuts always remain steady. They are never too fast so as to disorient the watcher from what is taking place, and its cause and effect within the environment.

As frenetic as the action is in Hard Boiled, John Woo knows pacing. With every high, there needs to be a counterpoint low. Following every major action scene in the film, of which there are three, if you count the teahouse, the warehouse, and the epically long hospital sequence, (which comes complete with its own pacing of waxing and waning), there is a calm after the storm—a moment of reflection. Woo likes to imply a sense of philosophy, and this movie wears its heart on its sleeve, from conversations about the nature of undercover work—the duality it creates between order and chaos—to Woo’s physical, almost omniscient presence, which resides over the film, as the jazz bar owner/operator. Woo cast himself at the last moment, apparently at the behest of Chow Yun-Fat, as the bar owner, a role that places Woo in a similar Meta situation with Yun-Fat and his character, Tequila. The bartender, as far as we know, is a retired cop, and a good one too, because he hands down knowledge, and sage advice, hopefully guiding Tequila in the right direction, like a director does to their actors. Tequila goes to him when he reaches an impasse and needs motivation.

The exploitation in Hong Kong cinema is rarely if ever shameful; the liberal “borrowing” of concepts that worked to yield box office rewards is common. But then, it is argued that all stories are derivatives of each other, and many directors will admit that filmmaking is part taking what you’ve seen and trying to imitate or work off of that, applying it to your own ideas. To this effect, as I mentioned before, Hard Boiled is in many ways the culmination of such borrowed inspiration. Not only was Woo affected by the tough guy, early action films of the 60’s & 70’s, but also by, as I mentioned previously, that of the New-Wave crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville’s films carry a cool essence with them; his characters interact with law and crime with an existential weight. The villains in Hard Boiled are well-dressed, slick, like Alain Delon, a counterpoint to the good guys, who are more in line with the American archetype, sporting working men’s clothes, and more absolute, black and white philosophy. While the plot is a conglomeration of American and French crime/action movies, the most physical example of homage or inspiration comes in the last hour of the film, as it has been likened to “Die Hard in a hospital.” The ultimate of this is the image of Tequila jumping from a hospital window while holding onto wiring that’s attached inside the building, breaking his fall to the ground as the structure behind him explodes. Of course, what elevates this moment of sensationalism just a slight bit higher than Die Hard‘s is the baby Tequila is holding in his arm all the while. And, let us not forget how the baby just survived a gun battle, in Tequila’s arm, with cotton balls in its ears for sound protection, only to save Tequila from fire burning up his legs by urinating down Tequila’s leg, putting the fire out. This is surely the kind of entertainment we would never see in a Die Hard.

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Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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