After frequently viewing bullet ballet, Judge Joel Pearce has nightmares about ballerinas with AK-47s.
Give a man a gun, he's Superman. Give him two, he's God.
There have been a lot of names for the genre that John Woo spearheaded with his Hong Kong action flicks. Heroic bloodshed, bullet ballet…these low-budget masterpieces have set the pace for the last decade of action filmmaking. While Woo's The Killer needs to be considered the quintessential heroic bloodshed film, Hard-Boiled holds its own as the ultimate bullet ballet movie. We've been waiting a long time for an anamorphic special edition in North America, and here it is.
Facts of the Case
Tequila (Chow Yun Fat, Curse of the Golden Flower) always wanted to be a musician. He gets to play clarinet at a local jazz club sometimes, but that hasn't panned out career-wise. Instead, he's a cop, working hard to bring down a major gun-smuggling operation. A big shootout in a teahouse leaves him without a partner, but gives him a big surge of energy to bring down the smugglers for good.
Meanwhile, another cop is on the case without Tequila's knowledge. Andy (Tony Leung, Hero) is an undercover cop, getting close to making the big bust. He's needed to do a lot of terrible things to get to this point, and he needs to keep Tequila out of his way. That's not going to be easy, though, because Tequila doesn't like listening to orders. Or reason. If they ever managed to work together, though, evil smuggler Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong, Infernal Affairs) may not be able to stop them…
Much has already been written about the action sequences in Hard-Boiled, with complete justification. This is flawless action cinematography, involving hundreds of characters, in some of the biggest shootouts in film history. Woo uses close-ups, quick cuts, slow-motion, and crazy tracking shots to weave in and out of the action. It works, because we become completely enthralled by the carnage. Woo doesn't just swing the camera around wildly, though, a complaint that can be leveled at many of his followers. Throughout these epic battles, we can keep track of each character, and we always know exactly what's going on. I can't begin to imagine the logistics that would need to go into sequences like the teahouse and the hospital, but I know I've rarely seen action this tight. In Hollywood, only Michael Mann and Ridley Scott can come close to this level of control, but neither of them creates the same wildly gleeful thrill that Woo does. It must have helped that he had a stunt team on retainer, a group whose work has only recently been matched by those crazy Thai guys who did The Protector and Born to Fight.
The quality of Woo's films has dropped of sharply since he started working in Hollywood. When we think of him now, it's difficult to ignore the disaster that was Broken Arrow, the fun-but-convoluted Face/Off, Mission: Impossible 2—and I don't even want to bring up Windtalkers and Paycheck. This collection of films is a shame, because it draws attention from the fact that this guy was once the greatest action film director on the planet. When you take a close look at Hard-Boiled, it's more than simply a collection of great action sequences. It's also a groundbreaking film that covered a lot of the plot devices that have become popular since that point. Hell, I'd even go so far to say that Infernal Affairs borrows liberally from Hard-Boiled, and hardly improves on how the issue is handled. Woo has two exceptional actors in Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung, who help to keep the film from diving too deep into melodrama. At 126 minutes, Hard-Boiled isn't a short film, but it never feels long.
At the core of Hard-Boiled, there is a conflict in the two central cops. Andy hates getting his hands dirty, but killing and acting like a triad is the only way for him to keep undercover and get his big collar. His intentions are good, but his actions are difficult to defend. Tequila's actions are also difficult to defend—the shootout at the beginning of the movie claims as many lives as the smuggled guns likely would have, had they reached their destination. Because of his reckless actions, he loses a partner. His quest for vengeance is a dangerous one, and it's hard to see how these two men could truly become heroes. We almost begin to question whether the interference of the police causes more damage than it prevents. Fortunately, we get John Woo himself in a small role here, as a bar-owning ex-cop who talks about what it means to be on the force. These conversations explore some of Woo's own ideas, the ones that he explored through all of his Hong Kong action movies. Did he realize at this point that he was working on the last one? I think it's likely, especially considering that China was about to take control of Hong Kong. Hard-Boiled was Woo's last shot for the Hong Kong film industry before he slipped quietly away, and we can confidently say that he gave it his all.
There is mostly good news on the technical end of things. The video transfer is the best I've seen, and has been significantly cleaned up and sharpened since the other releases we've seen. It's anamorphically enhanced, the color saturation is vastly improved, a lot of dirt has been scrubbed off the print. The audio is much better too, presented in the original mono, Dolby Digital 5.1 (in English and Cantonese), as well as a Cantonese DTS track. The mono track will appeal to purists, but most will want to go with one of the nicely upmixed surround tracks. There is, however, some bad news. Just like the previous North American editions, the English subtitles are really dubtitles, taken from the English dub rather than a literal translation of the Cantonese dialogue. While it won't prevent anyone from understanding the basic story, it's impossible to know how loose this translation truly is (unless you understand Cantonese, I suppose).
There are plenty of extras to shoot through on the two discs. The first disc has a commentary track with Bey Logan. It is full of useful cultural insights for people who want to dig deeper into the film. On the second disc, we begin with a production featurette. It centers on a new interview with Woo. It's a good interview, though it doesn't move at a very brisk pace. There are a handful of other interviews as well, with other producers and some minor cast members. In all, we get a great picture of the experience of making Hard-Boiled. We also get a location guide, which walks us through several of the actual shooting locations in Hong Kong. It's interesting to see how much has changed since Hard-Boiled was filmed. They've also used this opportunity to whore out the new Stranglehold video game, which was produced by John Woo and is based on Hard-Boiled. For my money, though, the best thing about the release of Stranglehold is that it gave Genius Products an excuse to release a great special edition of Hard-Boiled.
Rewatching Hard-Boiled has given me a lot of enthusiasm for Red Cliff, John Woo's first Chinese film since 1992. Hard-Boiled showed him at the peak of his skill, creating one of the biggest, wildest, most exciting, most intelligent action movies of all time. This new special edition is a great way to cherish the film, and is worth grabbing for all fans—even those that already have the Criterion edition. I love what the Dragon Dynasty series is doing for some of my favorite films, and I can't wait to see what they send down the pipe next.
Not guilty! Next time, record some new subtitles, though, and impress your
fans even more.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Bey Logan Commentary Track
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