“Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?”
This quote from Hot Fuzz (itself a fantastic pastiche of action cinema) went through my head a lot whilst I witnessed the ballistic fury of John Woo’s 1992 Hong Kong action film, Hard Boiled. It seems the majority of actors in this film would answer yes to the question as it appears to be a staple of John Woo’s style. This is the crux of what this film is about – frenetic, violent action with ample amounts of style.
John Woo is renowned for injecting new variety into the Hong Kong action film and introducing many elements now considered synonymous with the genre, for example, wielding two guns at the same time. Hard Boiled is the last film he made before setting out to bring his unique craft to America and it coincided with the decline of action cinema in the Far East. Thus Hard Boiled represents possibly the pinnacle of his efforts in the genre.
I found the story to be fairly inconsequential; the police are after some triads, and that’s pretty much all you need to know. The plot is merely here to provide a vehicle for the hectic shootouts and stunts, occasionally with a bit of crazy thrown in, and you can’t go far wrong with cops and robbers for that. It’s not bad, it’s just not great. The characters aren’t much to write home about either, most delivering the requisite dialogue ably never pushing into overly melodramatic territory. In fact, there are some witty exchanges, mainly involving Chow Yun-fat’s “Tequila” character and whoever else he may be chatting to. He exudes a laid-back cool here that you can’t help but enjoy. Overall the script seems fairly light-hearted, and therefore works well not to detract from the over-the-top action.
The film wastes barely any time before it lets loose, and serene jazz clarinet gives way to a hail of bullets. Each action sequence is choreographed so the pace barely ever slows; no dialogue, just incessant, energetic movement. Woo utilises the camera to great effect with fast-moving tracking shots affording the viewer with an involvement in the carnage. You almost feel like you’re popping out from cover to squeeze off rounds! My favourite shots are from low angles as they have a great sense of speed. Of course there is excessive use of slow-motion in this film, but surprisingly I didn’t mind. It feels appropriate and hardly overstays its welcome, offering small pockets to catch your breath. It should also come as no surprise that this film is violent, maybe excessively so. The body count is through the roof, somewhere up there with the later Rambo films. Blood is shed (civilians not exempt) and the action culminates in a somewhat gruesome shot which made me wince a little.
Here’s where I go out on a limb. I was neither shocked by the violence, nor was I appalled or unsettled. This could be down to the desensitizing process of watching many hours of violent cinema as a teenager, and while this may be true, I rather accredit it to John Woo’s talent in direction. The film is drenched in style, to the point where a gunfight is an acrobatic dance, with the sounds of ricochets and explosions its musical accompaniment. The focus is the kinetic mayhem, not the consequences of it. In summary, this is a film where style trumps substance with the result being highly entertaining – it knows what its audience wants, and it delivers in spades.
Besides, you can’t get much cooler than firing two guns whilst jumping through the air.