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Hard Boiled Review

Now I’m not only recovering from screenings, but recovering from Canadian elections too. I don’t want to use this blog to push any politics so let’s talk a film that elicited genuine gasps and shock from the audience when it was shown at the Mayfair theatre in Ottawa: Hard Boiled!

On paper, the production of Hard Boiled is kind of a mess. Some scenes such as the the tea-house fight were shot when there was no shooting script. When the film’s screenplay was written by Barry Wong, Wong sadly died while on vacation leaving it unfinished. Plot points that were originally in the script such as a baby-poisoning psychopath are mostly lost in the mix with elements stirred in towards the end during the heroic and slightly hilarious baby-rescue. Other re-writes involve Michelle Yeoh who was originally going to have been cast in Teresa Mo’s role. I’m not sure why this was changed, but Mo’s character was greatly re-written after Michelle was unable to be in the film. I assume somewhere in Hong Kong there is a huge cabinet full of nothing but screenplay drafts for Hard Boiled.

Here’s where I’m a bit confused. All credits and books I’ve read relating to the film say that John Woo completed the script himself, but an interview on the Hong Kong Cinemagic website with director and writer Gordon Chan suggest that he helped finishing the draft of Hard Boiled after Wong died. Gordon Chan even goes on to explain little bits of his draft that are in the film such as the warehouse scene. If this is the case, how come his name does not appear in the credits? I’ve read most books relating to Woo and have heard two audio commentaries on the film and I never heard Gordon mentioned once. So what gives?

Despite production troubles and my own historical confusion, Hard Boiled is a film that can maintain quality while not just being over the top in terms of action sequences but in basic plot elements which range from implausible to silly. Let’s look at some enjoyable nonsense we have here:

Hard Boiled Hospital
Hospitals have secret underground weapons bunkers
with Scrooge McDuck-esque sliding doors.

Hard Boiled Song

Coded messages being delivered through Lionel Richie lyrics
(and sung by Chow-Yun Fat and Teresa Mo!)


Weapons are hidden in Shakespeare and bird cages!

I’m just scratching the surface with that kind of pulp! To match them, we have the equally over the top action scenes which I consider to be some of the best filmed. When mentioning action scenes like “the teahouse scene” or “the hospital scene” to anyone who has seen Hard Boiled, they know what you are talking about without hesitation. This level of action also separates some audiences as some find it goes too far, while others rejoice in the glorious chaos. Personally, I like this film quite a bit, but I do see it in a slightly lesser light than Woo’s other major Hong Kong films, such as The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head. I do like it more than A Better Tomorrow II and Once a Theif. As for going too far, I think it doesn’t go as overboard as Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet so it suits me just fine.

Even though I do love action cinema, I’m a firm believer that if you are not going along with either the plot or characters, than you can have gorgeous action scenes that will not impress if you don’t care about the characters or what they are doing. Woo has compared the film to Dirty Harry with it’s tough police detective who makes vigilante justice seem appealing and Die Hard. I agree, especially with Die Hard for having really riveting action scenes in an isolated area all while giving quality actors some roles which are a bit thin on character and interest. To further the comparison in Die Hard, there are two actors with a lot of charisma (Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman) while in Hard Boiled we have some of the best actors to have graced Hong Kong screens, namely Chow Yun-Fat, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung (the real Tony Leung, not the fake one). Their performances (especially Chow’s and Tony’s) I think give enough depth to their characters to make them rise above the slightly messy plot. Tony and Chow seem to be having a blast, but not everyone had the fun working with Woo on the film. This was Anthony Wong’s only film with John Woo and he was not to happy on set. Wong felt the film was too comic-book like and didn’t like how Woo treated his actors. This is interesting, as everyone in America who’s worked with Woo had said that he is very polite and kind on the set while in Hong Kong, Woo is sometimes referred to as “the black faced God” being dead serious while working. I wonder how everyone felt about him during the production of Red Cliff?

On watching the film at the Mayfair theater, the audience was really taken by it. I don’t remember hearing so many loud gasps come from the audience since watching the joker do his pencil trick years back. I think this goes to show the quality of the film despite any plot’s short-comings: it still is exciting, keeps the audience hooked and is still talked about today. It set some pretty high standards for the action scenes in an action film so despite it’s flaws, I think Hard Boiled could easily creep in to a list of the top action films of the 1990s.

Sources: [1] [2]

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4 Responses to Hard Boiled Review

  1. Martin says:

    Doesn’t everyone communicate through Lionel Richie lyrics?

    Ooh what a feelin when we’re dancin on the ceiling.

    Bullet in the head and The Killer are my top two Woo’s, Bullet for it’s raw emotional power that never fails to have me sobbing like a baby and The Killer as it’s just pure cinema, in a way that few films ever get close to.

    I love Anthony Wong to death, but I wonder sometimes if he says things in interviews just to be controversial or contrary, and great as he undoubtedly is some of the turds he has been in, make me question the validity of his comments on Woo.

    • There must be some Hong Kong film where people physically dance on the ceiling. I’ll check through the Wong Jing catalog.

      Those two are up there for me too. It’s hard to judge Bullet in the Head though as it was chopped up with a weed-whacker in the editing room. If i find the time to watch it again, I should do a review.

      Wong also added in his interview that the only actor Woo listened to on set was Chow. I’d love to Wong’s views on how he was treated in The Mummy 3.

  2. Karl Brezdin says:

    The Killer was my first Woo film and while Hard-Boiled doesn’t come quite as correct with the narrative goods, it was one of my favorite movies to throw on for lazy Sundays during my most impressionable teenage years.

    Few of the characters in HB are painted with the same depth of pathos that The Killer or Bullet in the Head had, but I did find Tony to be an interesting character with a compelling performance from Tony Leung. And Shaw Brothers luminary Philip Kwok was all sorts of fun as Johnny Wong’s enforcer, Mad Dog.

    I’d be curious to know if Woo felt any pressure to use this as a tune-up for his action set-pieces with Hollywood calling after the cult buzz of The Killer. It’s a lesser Woo when viewed in the context of his HK filmography yet features better filmed action than about 90% of films released in the 1990s. Sometimes that comic-book feel with stock characters isn’t such a bad thing if guided by a slick hand. Killer:Hard-Boiled :: Alien:Aliens?

    • I recall reading that Hard Boiled was going to try and be a calling card for American studios. The original plot involved baby-poisoning but when the producer (Terrence Chang) discussed this with American producers, they were turned off by the idea.

      Hard Boiled is still pretty tight but knowing Woo’s other works, I wish his themes were a bit tighter…maybe exploring Tony Leung’s character a bit more. I do agree, I can just put it on for a blast! Mad Dog’s comicbook-esque appeals sort of cements it for me.

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