John Woo’s 1992 film, Hard Boiled is the greatest action movie ever made. Or, more accurately, it’s the greatest action movie you’ve never seen. Though rapturously received on release by critics and the public alike, it might as well be an Armenian satire on the subtleties of goat herding for all the people who can claim to have seen it now. It’s a difficult sell, as I can attest to after years of trying to force people to watch a dubbed picture made in Hong Kong twenty years ago, but this film needs to be appreciated for the masterpiece that I believe it is.
The plot concerns the jazz-loving Police Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat), something of a renegade in the police department. Whilst breaking up an arms deal at a local tea house, his partner is killed in a shoot-out, and Tequila is ordered off the case. Naturally something so trivial as an order from a superior isn’t going to stand in his way and he continues to pursue the case alone. Meanwhile, undercover cop Tony (Tony Leung) infiltrates the Triads from within, eventually joining forces with Tequila to destroy public property, point guns at each others’ faces menacingly, and shoot people in the eyes.
The film works on a number of levels, appealing to a range of demographics; hardcore cinema enthusiasts and connoisseurs can appreciate the strong imagery and fluid, daring camera work (including a spectacular one-and-a-half minute long tracking shot, traversing two floors of a hospital as the heroes clear the building of enemies during the film’s excellent climatic action set piece). On the other hand, the average viewer can enjoy the sight of a man jumping around firing two guns and a body count that extends way past the four hundred mark.
Of course, Woo’s film has it’s flaws. Much of the dialogue is stilted and clichéd, undoubtably caused in part by the decision to use a dubbed soundtrack, and one gets the impression that something has been lost in translation. Many of the characters, bar Tequila and Tony, are poorly developed, especially Tequila’s love interest Teresa, whose sole plot purpose is to be placed in perilous situations. The story is also one we’ve seen a number of times before, but these are all minor gripes; the action is what we came for, and it is delivered with such panache and flair as to negate the other criticisms, and it’s bolstered by strong performances from the two leads.