Action Junkie: Hard Boiled

The last hour the film spends in the hospital is a powerhouse of a last half of a film. First off, we have the two main characters, who by this point have one way or another reluctantly joined forces to take Johnny Wong down. Both Tequila and Alan have fallen in their individual graces and are seeking redemption. What better setting for such a rise from the depths of despair than a hospital, a place of healing? To hyper-accentuate the symbolism of this redemption, Woo adds the perfect flourish: Johnny Wong’s arsenal is kept, in of all places, the secret basement of the hospital, which coincidentally has only one entrance and exit, through the morgue. This works firmly with the philosophical/religious belief, a metaphoric interpretation of the Christ story, that one must first kill the self that was, to be reborn again a new self, one that with this newfound knowledge can now rise to obtain enlightenment.

Tequila and Alan pass through the morgue into the arsenal, where they confront Mad Dog. Even the two of them together are but a mere bother to Mad Dog’s unparalleled skill. Eventually, he leaves them to die of gas inhalation, from gas being pumped into the arsenal by Johnny Wong, who’s watching on a camera, reminiscent of the classic Bond villain, pulling strings from behind the safety of a broadcast. Our two heroes must then exit the morgue, this time sliding through the cold storage units to an ensuing gun battle on the other side. From this point the two main characters work side by side, evoking the kind of imagery that would later be used to help define the look of many modern day video game shooters, as they fight their way up from the depths of the basement into the higher levels of the hospital.

It is while Tequila and Alan are ascending the hospital that John Woo stages the most technically, visually impressive shot of the film. While the camera follows the two men down the hallway, the walls framing the outside of the shot, confining them to this specific space, there is no cut for practically a full three minutes. This is impressive not only for the shot’s duration without a cut, but more so because of the onscreen stunt work and pyrotechnics that splatter the frame like a Jackson Pollock painting. The camera stays just behind the two as they move down one hallway, enter an elevator, ascend a floor, and make their way down another hallway. In the middle of this sequence, Alan accidentally shoots a police officer amongst the chaos. On his way to redemption Alan makes the same mistake that Tequila did at the beginning of the movie. Left with no choice but the ultimate sacrifice for salvation, Alan pursues Johnny Wong, who’s holding a detonator for the arsenal below, which upon explosion will take the hospital out with it, but not before his final face-off with Mad Dog. As the two fly through glass windows, doors, and around each other’s bullets, it’s apparent they are pretty evenly matched. The fight is brought to a halt by the interference of patients trying to escape. This is where Mad Dog shows his true character as he refuses to fight with Alan until the patients have reached safety. When Johnny Wong barges in and begins shooting the patients, Mad Dog turns on him, upholding a code of honor: no innocents. This is the downfall of Mad Dog, as Johnny shoots him.

The climax peaks outside the hospital in a classic action film showdown trope; the villain has a hostage, in this case Alan, and holds the police, including the hero, Tequila, at bay. That is, until Alan makes Johnny shoot him, taking him, as the saying in the American action film Speed goes, out of the equation, so Tequila can then sharp shoot the shit out of Johnny Wong’s eye, and subsequently, brain. To American audiences perhaps unaccustomed to some of the culture differences in symbolism, Woo takes the film’s final climatic battle to some absurd levels—the babies, the body count of patients caught in the crossfire, and well, the babies—but to him and his culture these things are sincere and important, not meant for comedic relief. Certainly the film stands on the merits of its thrilling technical achievements alone, but as we can see, it owes just as much a certain debt of gratitude to action films before it as the ones that have come since owe to it. In any case, Hard Boiled is a testament to the action genre as a film that not only satisfies on a spectacle level but also achieves a far deeper context in its approach, making it in my opinion one of the greatest and most important action films ever.

Hard Boiled was recently released on Blu-ray for the first time by Dragon Dynasty, a subsidiary of the Weinstein Company. This release is in my opinion by far the best quality release of the picture in the American market. There were previous to this several VHS versions. The first DVD version was put out in 1998 by Criterion, and boasts such great special features as the only director’s commentary by Woo for this film of any sort, a student film by Woo, and a few other nice amenities, but the quality on this release is the poorest of the DVD releases. Fox Lorber re-released it on DVD in 2000, with no special features. It wasn’t until 2007 that Dragon Dynasty secured the rights and released a two-disc DVD set that features the best quality transfer of the film on DVD, including anamorphic widescreen, which the Criterion edition did not. The Blu-ray version of Hard Boiled has everything the two-disc set carries, but still not the commentary by Woo which is on the Criterion release.

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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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