In the late 1990s John Woo‘s name was synonomous with high-adrenaline action films. He’s the man that gave us Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible II, but before making the transition into Hollywood he had honed the art of action films in Hong Kong. Hard Boiled represents the best action film he developed during this period, and while it lacks the slick visuals of something like Face/Off, there is so much action in it that you barely have time to notice.
Hard Boiled opens in a tea house, which quickly descends into a shoot-out and Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yeun (Chow Yun-fat) loses his partner. Overcome with grief, Yeun slips into a melancholy and begins drinking heavily and spending a lot of time in a jazz club. Against his bosses orders he throws himself into the gang war that is tearing the province apart and runs into undercover police officer Tony (Tony Leung) and the two men slowly begin to work together to take down the gangs.
Hard Boiled, as the name suggests, is heavily influenced by the pulp fiction detective novels from the start of the 20th century. Yun-fat‘s Tequila is a non-nonsense grizzled detective from the Chandler mould, and despite exhibiting moments of sensitivity (any scene involving a baby), he really is the kick-ass heart of the film. Tony Leung gives a fantastic early performance too as the undercover cop desperately trying to stop his cover from being blown before finally relenting and joining Tequila.
Woo‘s direction of Hard Boiled is a precursor to what audiences would come to expect in something like Face/Off. He misses no opportunity to slow the almost ballet-like action down to a ‘dramatic’ slow motion shot, with explosions, bullet shells and deaths all given time to be explored. It is a quite astounding visual style and one that Woo would go on to use to great effect in later films, but Hard Boiled is where he really perfected it and it still stands up to scrutiny now. The scene upon entering the hospital still ranks as one of the most incredible action scenes ever committed to film. Simply unbelievable.
In truth it does get a little much by the end, and there must be more ‘man jumps through a window dramatically’ scenes in Hard Boiled than in any other film. It has moments on silliness, usually involving babies and fire, but in reality these are minor quibbles in an otherwise superb action film. Hard Boiled is effective and memorable, which is all that can be asked from a new director trying to establish himself as unique within an already clichéd genre. John Woo would go on to success in the US, but it is Hard Boiled that stands the test of time as his greatest entry into the action films genre.