John Woo's Hard Boiled is a scrumptious feast for action lovers - an explosively visceral, operatic tour de force of amazingly choreographed violence and blistering pyrotechnics that's iced with Woo trademarks. At its core the film is a fairly standard cop drama with a limp emotional hook and cardboard characters, but with action extraordinaire John Woo at the helm, Hard Boiled is pumped up several notches. Woo grasps the conventional framework of an over-the-top action-thriller before adding a dense layer of visual artistry which is supplemented with meticulous choreography and the visceral punch of innocents in harm's way. Altogether, it's the perfect recipe for a John Woo actioner, and if this isn't his masterpiece then it certainly represents the director well enough.
Hard Boiled introduces us to tough-as-nails Hong Kong inspector 'Tequila' Yuen. At the beginning of the film, Tequila loses his partner in a shootout with a ruthless local triad gang. Determined to settle the score with these gun smugglers, Tequila reluctantly partners up with undercover police officer Tony (Leung) who has infiltrated the Hong Kong Triads. As Tony and Tequila work to crack the gun-running case, there are countless chest-thumping gun battles mixed with some halfway decent character development on top of an interesting subplot concerning paper cranes.
More than anything else, Hard Boiled is anchored firmly in place by the jaw-dropping action. Countless bullets are discharged throughout the film as the duo of heroes battle literally hundreds of henchmen. The key action sequences in Hard Boiled can be instantly recalled just by naming the location in which they transpire (the tea house, the warehouse, and so on). The shootouts never lack energy and never fail to astonish - the opening gunfight itself would be a worthy climax for any American actioner. The entire final half an hour of the feature is one long, breathtaking action set-piece within a hospital which moves briskly from one tense confrontation/shootout to another. There's one particularly stunning shot during the hospital sequence that lasts almost three minutes and follows Tequila & Tony as they dispatch a multitude of henchmen. In excess of 100,000 rounds of blank ammunition were reportedly expended during the production of the film. Interestingly, even despite the nonstop gun battles, we hardly ever see any characters reloading...
Director Woo employs close-ups, quick cuts, slow-motion, and insane tracking shots to weave in and out of the action. As a result, a viewer can easily become enthralled by the intense carnage. Unlike most other action directors, Woo understands one crucial thing - the geography of an action sequence. Woo's cinematography is smooth and steady as opposed to over-edited and shaky (like the director's successors). Meanwhile the score is both eerie and adrenaline-pumping, and the editing is sharp. Credit is also due to those who designed + created the sets - every location which houses an action sequence is blown to pieces for our viewing pleasure. The mayhem is simply awesome! On top of the competent craftsmanship, there's some sly humour tossed into the mix as well. A special mention should be made about the body count for this flick - according to multiple websites, Hard Boiled dishes out 307 bodies in total (146 during the hospital sequence alone).
Woo has two exceptional actors in Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung, who help prevent the film from diving into deep melodrama. Hard Boiled is marred by one factor, however: Tequila is never developed as a flesh-and-blood character. Tequila is just Chow Yun-Fat, the Asian Arnold Schwarzenegger - he's a mere cardboard cut-out with nothing more behind him. Were it not for the fact that Tony Leung's character is thoroughly developed and that the action truly kicks ass, Hard Boiled would just be another disposable actioner.
Prior to director John Woo's Hollywood conversion (resulting in excellent films like Face/Off, as well as duds in the form of Paycheck, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible II), the man crafted a number of classic action films. Hard Boiled is arguably the best of the bunch. It's thin on plot, it's definitely silly, and it lacks an emotional hook, but it's the action and the top-notch filmmaking that deserves recognition here. From start to finish, dull moments are few and far between - and at over two hours in length, that's quite an achievement. Hard Boiled is also an essential motion picture which helped revolutionise the action genre for the subsequent generation - films like The Matrix owe their success and superb shootouts to this John Woo classic. You're simply not an action enthusiast unless you're familiar with Hard Boiled.