There is no subtlety whatsoever to John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” the follow-up to his action melodrama “The Killer.” “Hard Boiled” strips away much of the previous film’s labored sentiment and replaces it with insane action set-pieces involving babies in peril, motorcycles exploding in midair, and hundreds of thugs and cops flying through glass windows. So many glass windows. Yet “Hard Boiled” is also insanely fun in its ludicrousness. There is not one shred of realism in this go for broke, surprisingly gory, action extravaganza, and we are thankfully spared much of Woo’s heavy handed take on the duality of man, nature of evil, and spiritual concerns. There are also blessedly no doves whatsoever in this film. Woo’s films are better when he keeps his rote, superficial philosophizing to a minimum and lets his flair for berserko action take center stage.
The plot is simple if not always coherent. Rogue super cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) is out to avenge the death of his partner at the hands of Triad gun smugglers. While gunning down mob thugs, Tequila comes face-to-face with an undercover cop, played by Tony Leung, who is continually forced to compromise his own values in order to remain undercover. In Leung, Woo is able to examine his favorite theme of man being neither completely good nor wholly evil, but unlike in “The Killer,” “Hard Boiled” doesn’t dwell on this theme interminably and the film is the film is stronger for it.
John Woo, a Christian, displays substantial gore in this film with many highly stylized shots of arteries being severed followed by blood splattering onto faces, glass windows, and white walls. The heroes and villains also possess an insane tendency to create mayhem in the midst of crowded restaurants and hospitals where innocent bystanders are picked off quickly and by the hundreds. Had the film been a mainstream US release, its gory action scenes would have assuredly caught the attention of congress persons displaying election year “what about the children” concerns about media violence. The berserk violence of “Hard Boiled” is not an afterthought, though. It is, instead, the point of the whole bloody exercise. Remove the film’s stylized bloodletting and it would lose its pulse.
Maybe it says something about this viewer that Woo’s restrained by comparison and morally concerned “The Killer” came off as lackluster, while the more bloody, less talky cut to the chase “Hard Boiled” struck me as a wildly successful genre exercise. “The Killer” had a classical tragic story arc while the story of “Hard Boiled” is mostly a device to deliver mayhem. But “The Killer” was frequently heavy handed and Woo spends much of his film developing his hero’s thin personalities. Character development does not play to Woo’s strengths. He is at his best when choreographing death and destruction.
Woo makes several appearances in “Hard Boiled” as the owner of The Jazz Bar where Tequila plays tenor sax after hours. He is the film’s moral voice and offers meta-commentary on the action, but never overstays his welcome. These are light mostly insubstantial moments that clue you in to the fact that “Hard Boiled” is more concerned with obliterating man than examining his soul.